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NASCAR’s Tony Stewart needs a strong run at Sonoma

The temptation arose and Tony Stewart couldn’t resist.

After practicing on a warm afternoon at Infineon Raceway, the veteran NASCAR driver met with reporters and one asked how the heat affected Stewart in his race car.

It’s a routine question that usually draws a routine answer, but not with Stewart. “It doesn’t,” he replied. “If you guys get out of the media center and away from the buffet table once in a while . . . you’ll learn what it’s like to be in the heat.”

Next question.

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That’s Stewart, who probably suffers fools less than anyone in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But the two-time Cup champion has had even less reason to be patient with mundane queries lately because, so far this season, he’s struggling on the track.

For Stewart, that’s both as driver and owner because he’s in his third year as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, whose other driver is former Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman.

But Stewart hopes to reverse the team’s fortunes starting Sunday at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at the 10-turn Infineon track. He starts 20th in the 43-car field.

Known as one of the most versatile drivers in motor racing, Stewart is a two-time winner at Infineon and he’s also won five times at the Cup series’ other winding road course, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.

Stewart, who turned 40 last month, needs another strong run Sunday in his No. 14 Chevrolet because, through the first 15 races of the season, he hasn’t won and has finished in the top five only once.

He’s been steady enough to stay 11th in the Cup championship standings, so Stewart is still poised to make a run at the 12-driver Chase title playoff. Newman also is winless and eighth in points.

But Stewart’s cars too often have lagged and so far he can’t identify the key problem. Earlier this month, he released the team’s competition director, Bobby Hutchens, which Stewart called “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.”

“It’s hard when your name is on everything and you feel responsible . . . and you don’t know what’s wrong,” said Stewart, whose last win came in October 2010 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

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Blunt, opinionated and mercurial, Stewart is a native of Columbus, Ind., who can be charming one moment and testy the next. Nicknamed “Smoke,” he’s known for criticizing fellow drivers, the media and even NASCAR at times, and for raising several million dollars for charity in his career.

In an age when many sponsor-minded NASCAR drivers are perceived as being overly bland, Stewart — with 39 career Cup wins — is a fan favorite precisely because he doesn’t fit that mold.

That hasn’t changed since Stewart became a team owner, but that role has added to his frustration as a driver this season.

“If I’m not running good, I’m not happy,” said Stewart, who drove for Joe Gibbs Racing before forming Stewart-Haas with Gene Haas, head of Haas Automation Inc. in Oxnard. “We’ve had a lot of times this year when we haven’t been running good. I’ve been that way all my life.”

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Before joining NASCAR in 1999, Stewart had raced sprint cars and then Indy-style cars, among other forms of racing, and he owns sprint-car teams, which helped set the stage for his NASCAR ownership.

“I didn’t care at all about being my own boss,” Stewart said. The main goal of Stewart-Haas, he said, was answering the questions: “What would I do if I ever stopped driving the car? What would I do with the rest of my life?”

Newman said Stewart brings “a different perspective” as an owner “because he’s in the [driver’s] seat right now. He understands what we’re fighting for and that’s an advantage for both of us.”

Still, “I don’t think either of us are proud this far into the season not winning a race,” Newman said.

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That could change Sunday, but first Stewart and his team must figure out how to keep pace with the leaders.

If they knew what to change, Stewart said, “we’d have fixed it by now.”

james.peltz@latimes.com


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