Monday, March 26, 2012

Smoke Signals: "Rain Man" Tony Stewart wins at Fontana, leads solid day for SHR

Tony Stewart flashes two fingers signaling his two wins this season.
Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR
They say “it never rains in Southern California,” but the inclement weather worked in Stewart-Haas Racing’s favor Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. A dominant Tony Stewart won the rain-shortened Auto Club 400, his second win of the 2012 season, and teammate Ryan Newman finished seventh, his second top-10 finish of the year.

Stewart is on a remarkable tear. The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet picked up right where he left off in 2011, when he won half the races in the Chase to claim his third Sprint Cup title. To put it in perspective, Stewart has won seven of the last 15 races.

Despite winning the championship, Stewart-Haas Racing made sweeping changes during the off-season, bringing in Steve Addington as the No. 14 crew chief and Stewart’s former crew chief Greg Zipadelli as the organization’s new director of competition. The changes have prevented the team from slipping into complacency after their stunning success last year.

Stewart has never won two races so soon in a Sprint Cup season, and he welcomes the early surge.

“It's been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have. Like you said, the history shows in the last 13 years we have not had the strongest starts the first third of the year. I'm really, really excited about the start that we've got going,” Stewart said.

“So really, really proud of what Steve and all of our guys at Stewart-Haas Racing have done.”

Stewart was fast from the get-go Sunday. Starting ninth at the 2-mile superspeedway, a hard-charging Stewart drove up to third place before the first 20 laps were complete. Stewart pulled some impressive slide moves to pass off his competitors, much to the chagrin of Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

On Lap 85 Stewart passed Kyle Busch to take the lead for the first time that day – and within three laps built a 2.4-second lead over second place. Stewart gave up the lead on Lap 104 to pit, but quickly reclaimed it on Lap 108, leading a total of 42 laps Sunday. Stewart held off an approaching Hamlin before the race was stopped for rain on Lap 125, the event’s only caution.

When pit road was open, Stewart faked out the field by veering toward pit road before pulling back onto the track.

"I don't think that I faked him out," Stewart said, referring to second-place Hamlin, who pitted. "I'm sure he had made his decision already - looked good, though."

About an hour after the red flag came out on Lap 129, the race was called for rain 71 laps short of its scheduled distance and Stewart was declared the winner.

Though the race was shortened, the fastest car still won.

“I mean, you hate to have them end with rain like that. But I’ve lost some that way. The good thing is we didn’t back into the lead because we stayed out and the leaders came in. I mean, we were leading the thing and had earned that spot. I’m proud of that,” Stewart said.

The victory marks Stewart’s 46th Sprint Cup win, tying him with Buck Baker for 14th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list. The win is Stewart’s second at the Fontana track.

Stewart’s teammate Newman cemented a strong day for Stewart-Haas Racing. The driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army ROTC Chevrolet started sixth in Sunday’s race and by Lap 6 had cracked the top 3. However, the No. 39’s handling became tight as the race went on, and Newman fell back as far as ninth.

When the caution came out for rain, Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson decided to stay out. The strategy paid off as Newman gained two spots to finish seventh when the race was called.

“We were a little inconsistent today, going from tight to loose to tight again,” Newman said. “Even though we were capable of more, we’ll take a top-10 out of it.

“We certainly made adjustments each time we pitted, but it seemed we just couldn’t get things the way we needed to. That’s the way it goes sometimes. It was definitely not for a lack of effort,” Newman said.

Newman’s top-10 finish means fans can feast on free Bloomin’ Onions at his sponsor Outback Steakhouse on Monday.

With both teams finishing in the top 10, Stewart-Haas Racing moved up in the Sprint Cup points standings. Stewart jumped three spots to fourth place, just 18 points behind leader Greg Biffe. Newman also rose three spots in the standings, sitting comfortably in 10th, 40 points behind Biffle.

Stewart-Haas Racing switches focus to Martinsville this weekend, where the team looks to repeat its success from last fall. Stewart won at the volatile short track on the way to his third Sprint Cup title, and Newman finished a solid 10th.

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