Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Smoke Signals: Stewart cashes in at Las Vegas, Newman gets first top 5 of the season

Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart celebrates his first win of the season
and his first win at Las Vegas. Credit: Getty Images for NASCAR
After disappointment at Daytona and Phoenix, Lady Luck was on Stewart-Haas Racing’s side at Las Vegas. Sprint Cup Champion and team owner Tony Stewart dominated the second half of Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 to win his first race of 2012 and his first at the 1.5-mile racetrack. Teammate Ryan Newman finished fourth, earning his first top 5 of the season.

It was a welcome change of fortunes after bad luck and an EFI failure plagued the duo the last two weeks. The last time both Stewart-Haas Racing cars finished in the top 10 was November at Phoenix, where Stewart finished third and Newman fifth.

Sunday’s win brought redemption for Stewart, who came so close to winning the race one year ago in Las Vegas until he incurred a penalty for leaving his pit box with an air hose still attached. After losing the race to Carl Edwards, Stewart had said “second sucks.”

There was none of that Sunday as Stewart flawlessly pulled away from four-time champion Jimmie Johnson by 0.461 seconds to take the checkered flag.

“Man, I’m just finally glad to win one here,” Stewart said. “We were so close last year and had a dominant car. I’m not sure we had the dominant car today, but we had an awfully fast Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy. Just glad to finally get one at Vegas.”

Stewart led three separate times for a race-high 127 laps en route to his 45th Sprint Cup victory, ranking 15th on the all-time wins list, and his sixth win in the last 13 races. The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet has won four of the last six races on 1.5-mile tracks.

Stewart rolled off the grid seventh in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 and quickly moved up into the top five. He raced into second place by Lap 60, but lost some ground after a piece of debris attached to his grille. Stewart pulled up behind Greg Biffle, which knocked off the debris. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 134.

In addition to the nickname “Smoke,” Stewart may have picked up another: the King of Restarts. The three-time Sprint Cup champion made a bold three-wide pass to reclaim the lead from Brad Keselowski on Lap 237 after the race’s fifth caution. But Stewart’s work wasn’t done: in the last 30 laps, he bolted ahead of his competitors on the next three restarts to claim the long-sought win.

Stewart makes a reverse victory lap at Las Vegas.
Credit: Getty Images for NASCAR
“It just seemed like every time the caution was out, we started building the lead back up and started pulling away. The trend we were getting every time the caution came out, we're starting to get to where we can relax, run our rhythm, not have guys pressure us on entry, back my corner up and do what I wanted to do,” Stewart said.

“You sit there and go, how many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart - something is going to get taken away from us because of this. It's very nerve-wracking. That was the great thing about our racecar, is it would go from there to Turn 1 - it was just awesome. I think we were hands down the strongest car on restarts of getting to turn one from the restart point,” he said.

After hitting the jackpot at Las Vegas, the only tracks where Stewart hasn’t won are Darlington and Kentucky. Sunday’s win also marks the earliest Stewart has won in a season - 43 of his 45 victories have come between May and November.

The Kobalt Tools 400 is Stewart’s first points win with new crew chief Steve Addington. Stewart and Addington won the first Gatorade Duel during Speedweeks. Stewart has faced scrutiny after deciding to release championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb despite winning the title last year.

“I was really happy for Darian last week to get that win. I know it was a tough scenario for us to part ways at the end of the year. It was neat to see him and Denny (Hamlin) get a win last week. It's neat to see me and Steve get a win this week,” Stewart said. “Hopefully it will calm everybody down and get back to the task at hand. I'm glad both teams have come out strong like this.”

Newman added to Stewart-Haas’ good fortune. The driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet Impala started Sunday’s race in 18th and hung outside the top 10 for the first 100 laps, finally breaking through on Lap 113. A series of two-tire stops helped the team gain track position. Crew chief Tony Gibson called for wedge adjustments that gradually improved the handling of the tight racecar.

After the eighth and final caution, Newman restarted eighth. He skillfully drove around Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne when they made contact. In the process, Newman gained four positions in the last four laps, bringing home a 4th-place finish and his first top 5 of the year.

“We peaked at the right time because we finished fourth, and that was the highest we ran all day,” Newman said. “It was a great run for the Quicken Loans Chevrolet. We’re really proud to be able to get them a top five in their first race. We were in the right place at the right time on that last restart. We restarted eighth, and the 17 had his little issue there, and I just kept the pedal to the metal there and drove it up to fourth.

“It was an awesome day for Stewart-Haas,” Newman said. “Tony and the guys did a great job.”

Stewart-Haas Racing sponsor Outback Steakhouse offers free Bloomin’ Onion appetizers to fans whenever Newman scores a top 5 in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race. Wonder how many they gave out Monday!

SHR’s strong finishes helped the duo gain major ground in the points standings. After his win, Stewart jumped eight spots to the seventh spot, 25 points behind leader Greg Biffle. Newman is up five spots to 13th, 39 points behind the leader.

Next, the team heads to Bristol, where Stewart and Newman hope to capitalize on their Vegas success. Stewart has one win (fall 2001), six top 5s and eight top 10s at the temperamental short track. Newman claimed the pole here in the fall. While he has yet to win at the concrete bullring, Newman has one top 5 and 12 top 10s to his credit.


Post a Comment