Whenever he’s asked what his race team needs to fix to be more competitive, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart delivers a standard answer: “If I knew that, don’t you think I’d be doing it?”

Usually Stewart is smirking or kidding, but by late in the 2012 season, the tone was more serious.

After one of the most remarkable championship runs in NASCAR history in 2011, Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy was less frequently a trophy threat in 2012. Despite a very respectable three wins, Stewart defended his title with a ninth place in the standings — his worst showing since a ninth place in 2008. It marks only the third time in his 14-year Cup career he’s placed worse than seventh overall.

“A lot of places that we were so good at last year in the Chase, not being good this time and this year was a little disappointing,” Stewart said.