Monday, March 19, 2012

Smoke Signals: SHR pulls out top-15s after long day at Bristol

Tony Stewart races Paul Menard during the Food City 500.
Credit: Geoff Burke/Getty Images
Coming off a strong weekend at Las Vegas, Stewart-Haas Racing aimed to continue their momentum at Bristol. After both drivers went down a lap in Sunday’s Food City 500, team owner Tony Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman pulled out hard-fought finishes in the top-15 at the concrete bullring.

After late contact with Brendan Gaughan deprived Stewart of a top-10 finish, the defending Sprint Cup champion was happy to finish 14th. Newman, coming off a third-place starting spot, experienced pit road issues that put him further in the field, but the “Rocketman” worked his way up to a 12th-place finish.

Stewart has one win at the .533 short track, but his last three finishes here were 19th or worse. The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet looked to better that this weekend.

Stewart rolled off the grid 23rd and worked his up to 18th by Lap 85. A slow pit stop after the race’s second caution shuffled Stewart back to 21st on the restart on Lap 121. Stewart, unfazed, assured his crew they’d make up the ground. Within 80 laps, Stewart broke into the top-15, running as high as 12th.

More than 300 laps in of the 500-lap event, Stewart raced leader Brad Keselowski vigorously for nearly 20 laps before Keselowski put the Sprint Cup champion one lap down. But Stewart held onto the Lucky Dog position and got his lap back on Lap 341 after the race’s third caution.

Back on the lead lap, Stewart drove up to ninth by Lap 390. Stewart was on his way to a top-10 finish until Gaughan hit Stewart, sending the No. 14 into the wall on Lap 478, which brought out the fifth and final caution. With the laps dwindling down, Stewart salvaged a 14th-place finish.

“Brendan came down and told me and all of my guys sorry, which we really appreciated,” Stewart said. “He went down into (Turn 3) and the brake pedal went to the floor. It’s kind of good that I was there to somewhat slow him down a little bit, but at the same time, we had a top-10 run going there, which for the way we’ve run here the last couple trips, it’s a big improvement.

“Normally, 14th isn’t something we’re too happy about, but compared to how we’ve been, I thought we made big gains on it today,” Stewart said.

Newman started the weekend fast. The “Rocketman” – who got his nickname at Bristol after setting the track qualifying record in 2003 – qualified third for Sunday’s Food City 500 and led the last practice in the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet.

In his six Bristol starts with SHR, Newman finished in the top-10 five times. This weekend, Newman said in his NASCAR.com blog he was aiming for a top 5.

After the green flag dropped Sunday, Newman held his own in third place against a racy Jeff Gordon. But after the first caution came out for a multi-vehicle crash on Lap 24, Newman was boxed in in his pit box and lost valuable track position, forcing him to restart 13th.

The incident shaped the rest of Newman’s day. The driver of the No. 39 was mired back in traffic in the top 20 as he battled a tight racecar. Just before 300 laps in, Newman went one lap down.

Though he got his lap back on Lap 361, within 100 laps Newman once again lost the lap to the leaders. He was only able to get it back when Stewart hit the wall on Lap 478 to bring out the last caution. Newman restarted 14th and made up two spots to finish 12th.

Newman was disappointed with his finish after how fast the No. 39 had been throughout the weekend.

“I feel like we let one slip away today,” said Newman. “We were better all weekend than a 12th-place finish, that’s for sure. That’s definitely not what we wanted today. Our Quicken Loans Chevy was fast off the truck, and we were strong all weekend. The guys did good in the pits, and they worked hard all day. But we just could never adjust on it the way we needed. We were just way too tight.”

Stewart’s and Newman’s performances were enough to put the SHR duo in the top 12 in the Sprint Cup point standings. Stewart remains in seventh place, 27 points behind leader Greg Biffle, while Newman jumped a spot to 12th, 39 points behind the leader.

Update: Jimmie Johnson's 25-point penalty was rescinded Tuesday, which buoyed the five-time Sprint Cup champion to 11th in points, bumping Newman to the 13th spot.

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