Tony Stewart drove in his 500th Sprint Cup race in the 2012 finale at Homestead-Miami. "I'm pretty proud of that," he said before the race. "It's a cool accomplishment."
It was probably the only good memory in a very forgettable Chase for Stewart, hat who finished 17th at Homestead-Miami. A year after winning five of the 10 playoff races to take his third championship, Stewart had best finishes of fifth twice, two more top-10s and six were 13th or worse. He finished ninth in the points.
The same driver on the same tracks with the same basic Chevrolet chassis and engines, supplied by Hendrick Motorsports, went from a 6.3 average finish in 2011 to 14.1 this season. It seems inexplicable until remembering that it wasn't the same No. 14 team or Stewart-Haas organization as a year ago.
Stewart decided a new crew chief was necessary after a winless regular season in 2011 and told Darian Grubb to start looking, but to not leave until after the Chase. Stewart hired Steve Addington, a veteran crew chief who had 16 career Cup victories and had gone to the Chase with Kyle and Kurt Busch.
The communication clicked early between Stewart and Addington. The No. 14 won in the third race at Las Vegas, the fifth at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and the 18th at Daytona. Stewart had eight top-three finishes through 18 races and had a best of fourth and a total of four top-fives in the last 18.
Stewart and Addington lost their way, undoubtedly a frustrating development for both. They were never contenders in the Chase, a situation Stewart found difficult to handle.
"All everybody wants to do is talk about the guys that are in it," he said at Homestead-Miami before the race, "and all we want to do is worry about the stuff that we're doing that didn't get us in it and trying to make our cars better. That is the stuff we're trying to work on and to concentrate on our program and not worry about what everybody else is doing.
"And it's hard. You want to be in the middle of it and you want to be one of those guys that are there, but at the same time when it doesn't work out, you have to sit there and try to figure out why you didn't get yourself in that situation. They're still trying to fight for this year, but we're already fighting for next year."
The other major changes for 2012 in the organization were hiring Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief for his Cup championships in 2002 and 2005 at Joe Gibbs Racing, to be competition director and adding Danica Patrick to drive in 10 Cup races.
It was Zipadelli's first season as a Cup competition director and Stewart-Haas also tasked him with being Patrick's crew chief, too. It put a lot on his plate and it's possible he wasn't able to do either job completely to his capabilities.
Stewart-Haas' Ryan Newman won a race, but didn't make the Chase and finished 14th in the points. With Patrick driving the full Cup schedule next year, Stewart-Hass restructured its leadership roles in mid-October.
Zipadelli was replaced for Patrick's two remaining races by Tony Gibson, who had been crew chief for Newman. Matt Borland, an engineer and vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas, became crew chief for Newman, a job he had from 2002 to 2006 at Penske Racing. Borland and Newman won 12 races together.
Stewart and Addington stayed together, headed for a second season and development of the new 2013 car. Their first season together wasn't all bad, three wins, but it wasn't good, either.
"I think the high point is probably winning at Las Vegas, winning at a track we hadn't won at before is definitely a high point," Stewart said. "A lot of places that we were so good at last year in the Chase, not being good this time and this year around was a little disappointing.
"We didn't have the season we wanted, but we also knew that it would be tough to duplicate the kind of run we had last year."
Stewart doesn't have to be concerned with what they can't figure out with this year's car next year. Considering where Stewart and Addington were in the second half of the season, a fresh start may be just what the doctor ordered.
"We're got such a different car and different package next year, everybody just kind of starts over," Stewart said. "I am discouraged that we are finishing this way, but not because of what it's going to lead to next year. Everybody is going to start with stuff that is totally different package wise than what we have.
"A totally new body, that is obvious to everybody, but things underneath the car that the guys are doing to the cars this year that are not going to be allowed to do next year. There are a lot of changes it's going to be a whole new learning process starting over in Daytona."