Now that NASCAR has gotten past its annual long journey into night -- otherwise known as the Coca-Cola 600 marathon -- it's time for the Sprint Cup Series to hit a summer stretch of shorter races. The schedule does not have another 500 -- in either miles or laps -- until Bristol in late August. Instead of dreary endurances races, many of the upcoming events will bear a closer resemblance to old-fashioned, dirt-track sprints. The weather is warmer, the track is slicker and pure driving ability is at a premium.
For years, this has been Tony Stewart's time to shine. He has been notorious for getting off to slow starts (though that certainly wasn't the case last season, when he won two of the first five races), only to heat up along with the weather. And once the driver they call "Smoke" gets hot, he often starts burning his way to victory lane. Of Stewart's 47 career Cup victories, 41 of them have occurred after May 31, including two at this week's venue, Dover International Speedway.
Stewart needs to have some serious sizzle this summer because he has never gotten off to a start as slow as he has this year. His seventh-place showing at Charlotte last Sunday was his best finish of the season. He now has as many top-10s (two) as Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambros and Juan Pablo Montoya. Not exactly a Murderer's Row of drivers. Even more embarrassing, Stewart has fewer top-10s than Denny Hamlin, even though Hamlin missed four races with a back injury.
Stewart currently is 20th in the point standings, unfamiliar territory for a driver who has never finished worse than 11th during his 14-year Cup career. But he is only 44 points out of 10th place, which would get him into the Chase. And he probably needs only two victories to secure one of the wild card spots, as long as he remains in the top-20 of the standings.
So all is not lost for Stewart this year. Still, his achingly slow start to the season is a puzzler. Here are five theories as to why he has been less than stellar so far in 2013:
? His team missed something in offseason preparation for the new Gen-6 car: This seems to be the most logical explanation because his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates -- Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick -- have also struggled this season. Newman is 16th in the standings with one top-5 finish, while Patrick has finished better than 25th only once since the season-opening Daytona 500. This team simply has not made a successful transition to the new car, and things might not improve significantly until the offseason.
? Stewart misses crew chief Darian Grubb: There might be a bit of truth to this theory, though it certainly didn't show last season as Stewart won three times with new crew chief Steve Addington. Still, it is hard to deny that Hamlin has improved since Grubb became his crew chief last season, while Stewart has taken a step back.
? Stewart has spent too much time concentrating on helping to develop Patrick: There is no doubt that he has a financial interest in seeing her succeed, and has probably devoted more time to her than he would to a veteran driver. But Stewart is in his fifth season of being both a driver and a car owner, so he is accustomed to handling a number of issues at once. Whatever time he is spending with Patrick is probably not affecting his performance on the track.
? He is simply getting older: It happens to every driver, even the best of them. And sometimes it happens quickly. Dale Jarrett, for example, won the 1999 Cup championship and finished ninth in the standings in 2002, when he was 45. He plunged to 26th the following season and won only two more races during the rest of his career. Stewart just turned 42, so it is still too soon to say he has lost a touch. But in a sport as competitive as NASCAR, it doesn't take much.
? There is nothing wrong with Stewart. He just got off to a slow start: That is certainly a possibility. We'll know soon enough. This is the time of year when"Smoke"usually rises to the occasion. We'll soon see if does.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Johnson tied for his worst showing of the season at Charlotte, finishing 22nd. The fact that one-third of the way through the season he has not finished worse than that is an indicator of the team's strength.
2. Matt Kenseth (2nd) -- Kenseth's 15th-place showing at Charlotte belies how good he was for much of the race (he led 112 laps). He has led more than 80 in seven of the 12 races.
3. Carl Edwards (3nd) -- Edwards, on the other hand, has led a grand total of 31 laps since his victory at Phoenix on March 3. But he remains solid every race, with 11 consecutive top-20 finishes.
4. Clint Bowyer (4th) -- Like Edwards, he runs well nearly every week though he rarely leads. He has led more than a single lap in only one race (Richmond), but he is also on a run of seven straight finishes in the top-20.
5. Kasey Kahne (5th) -- He posted his third runner-up of the season at Charlotte to go along with his victory at Bristol. But he has been too inconsistent (five finishes outside the top-15) to deserve a spot any higher in the rankings.
6. Kevin Harvick (unranked) -- Harvick has half as many top-10s as Johnson (four to Johnson's eight), but just as many victories (two). After a sluggish start to the season, he has two wins and a fifth-place finish in the past four races.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6th) -- Engine failure at Charlotte sent him to his worst showing of the season (39th). He has only two top-10s in the past seven races, with three finishes outside the top-20.
8. Martin Truex Jr. (unranked) -- Since finishing 40th at Martinsville on April 7, Truex has ripped off seven consecutive top-20s, with four top-10s. If he can ever pick up that elusive victory, he might become a dark horse championship contender.
9. Brad Keselowski (8th) -- The return this week of crew chief Paul Wolfe from a NASCAR suspension is much needed for Keselowski. The defending champ has finished worse than 30th in three of the past four races.
10. Paul Menard (unranked) -- There is no way to consider him a better driver than Kyle Busch, but for the moment, Menard occupies the final spot in the rankings because Busch has slid from second to 11th in the point standings thanks to three finishes in the 30s during the past five races.