5 years. NASCAR fans endured 5 years of what most certainly will be remembered as one of the most dominant eras of the sport. Year after year, fans complained about how one driver, Jimmie Johnson, was too bland, too nice, and too simple. And he won too much. Way too much.
He won championships in the old style car body and the COT. He won championships with the wing and the spoiler. He won championships despite multiple suspensions of his crew chief, Chad Knaus. Heck, he won championships even during seasons like 2008 and 2012, when Carl Edwards won 10 races and Denny Hamlin visited victory lane 8 times, respectively. And throughout all that, the motorcycle racer from Southern California still emerged on top. Was it consistency, great equipment, lots of luck, or pure talent? I'm sure that every fan has a different opinion on that.
But 2011 was a game-changer. for the first time since 2005, someone not named Johnson was holding the Sprint Cup at the season's end. Tony Stewart narrowed out Carl Edwards in a battle of personalities and strategies by winning the Cup on a tiebreaker. Meanwhile, Johnson finished a distant 6th.
Despite a dismal "regular season", Smoke barely clinched a spot in the Chase, having to outduel Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski to do so. Prior to the Chase-opening race at Chicago, he even said "We're wasting a spot here. We've been so bad, we don't even deserve to be in this position."
Enter Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb.
A fuel-mileage gamble at the end of the 267-lap race got the No. 14 team their first win of their 2011 campaign. By getting that bit of luck, the team used that momentum to grab their second win just a week later. But some bad runs in the next few races caught them by surprise, and Stewart was in danger of falling out of the top 5 in points with 4 races left in the season. But the magic somehow returned, and he won 3 of those final four races, finishing 3rd in the other, to tie Edwards. Because of his 5 wins total compared to Edward's 1, Stewart got the championship on the tiebreaker. Interestingly enough, he was the last driver to win before Jimmie Johnson's reign from 2006-2010, taking home the prize back in 2005.
In what proved to be one of the most entertaining offseasons in recent memory, Grubb, the wonder-working, championship-winning crew chief, was let go by Stewart-Haas Racing. He said that "The decision (to let me go) was made before the Chase started. Before the final 10 races, I knew I wasn't coming back." A few weeks later, Darian found his home at the struggling Joe Gibbs Racing team of Denny Hamlin. Meanwhile, Steve Addington of Kurt Busch's team was brought over to CC for Tony Stewart's No. 14 ride. Doubts arose as to whether this change was the best for both teams, and if the transition time would affect one or both of the drivers' 2012 seasons.
But after 5 races this season, we know that both Stewart and Hamlin have not missed a beat, combining for 3 wins already, two by Stewart. He now is currently up in the top 5, with more wins than anyone else in the series. With a total of 7 wins in the past 15 races, many fans are begging the question: Is this the beginning of the "Stewart Era"?
Is now the prime of Tony's career? Can he pump out more wins, or will the fire pushing his team run out of fuel?
Many fans struggled with Jimmie Johnson's dominance over the Sprint Cup Series from 2006 to 2010. But another storm may just be rising.