Monday, March 5, 2012

Smoke Signals: Stewart-Haas Racing's day goes up in smoke at Phoenix

A reported circuit breaker issue cost Tony Stewart a chance at the win.
Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR

This isn’t the start to the season that Stewart-Haas Racing wanted.

After a rough go at Daytona, reigning Sprint Cup champion and team owner Tony Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman looked to rise up at Phoenix, but instead they fell further into the ashes. Their chances at top-10 finishes in Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 went up in smoke with a pair of late-race disasters.

Stewart became one of the first in the Sprint Cup Series to experience a malfunction with electronic fuel injection, preventing him from re-firing his No. 14 Office Debot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet. Newman was battling Carl Edwards when the two made contact, turning the No. 39 WIX Filters Chevrolet into the wall in Turn 4.

As a result of their troubles, Newman and Stewart finished the race two laps down in 21st and 22nd, respectively.

Stewart’s weekend started out strong. The three-time Sprint Cup champion led opening practice at Phoenix and qualified on the outside pole. After the green flag dropped for the Subway Fresh Fit 500, Stewart was competitive off the bat, leading Laps 2-10. He spent most of the day in the top 10 and aimed to finish there until calamity struck.

New crew chief Steve Addington advised Stewart to begin saving gas on Lap 229 in anticipation of a fuel-mileage race. On Lap 248, Stewart was running 13th when he shut his racecar off under caution as a fuel-saving measure and couldn’t restart it. A wrecker truck pushed the champion to pit road. The crew was finally able to get the car restarted, but not until Stewart had gone two laps down.

With 60 laps left in the race, the hurdle was too much for the No. 14 team to overcome.

“I just shut the car off like we did at Daytona and turned it back on, and it never re-fired,” Stewart said in a TV interview, sounding perplexed.

“That’s all I can tell you. I don’t know why it didn’t re-fire. I honestly don’t know. It’s not really my department. I just turned the switch back on, and it never re-fired. I don’t know why that was, but it definitely cost us a good day,” Stewart said.

Addington said a breaker kicked off in the car’s EFI system, which NASCAR implemented this year on the series level. As to why it malfunctioned, the crew chief was looking into it with Hendrick Motorsports’ engine department, which supplies the motors to Stewart-Haas.

“We talked with the Hendrick guys. We’ll keep working with them to try to figure out what happened,” Addington said. “We’ve got to dig into it and find out what happened, when it happened and what caused it. We’re all learning through this, and we’ve just got to look into it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

For Newman, the weekend commenced with calamity. During the first practice session at Phoenix, Newman got loose and hit the outside wall, forcing him to go to a backup car. But the driver of the No. 39 car rebounded and qualified a solid sixth.

Newman battled an ill-handing racecar Sunday as it switched between loose and tight. By Lap 66 he had fallen to the 25th position and was mired back in traffic. During the third caution on Lap 116, the No. 39 was penalized for a fuel can out of the pit box. Newman, who was in 12th, had to go to the end of the longest line and restart in the mid-20s.

After another caution on Lap 132, crew chief Tony Gibson and Newman stayed out to get track position, restarting 14th. The No. 39 team stayed out again on Lap 248 when David Reutimann’s blown engine brought out the sixth caution of the day.

Not long after Stewart’s engine issues, Newman’s chances to leave the desert with a top 10 vanished. Newman was running 6th and racing side-by-side with Carl Edwards in Turn 4 when the No. 99 slipped up into Newman. The No. 39 spun and hit the wall, sustaining heavy damage to the left rear and deck lid. Newman pitted twice for repairs and returned to the track the last car on the lead lap. He finished the race two laps down, just one position ahead of Stewart.

“I’m 99 percent sure Carl Edwards didn’t do that on purpose, but I trusted him and we ended up losing a lot today,” Newman said. “I don’t consider that a deliberate move by any means. We will go forward. We finished 21st today, and it was a hard-fought 21st after getting crashed."

After the second race of the season, Stewart sits 15th in the series standings, 37 points behind race winner and leader Denny Hamlin, and Newman in 18th, 43 points back.

Stewart-Haas Racing now looks ahead to Las Vegas. After finishing second in last year’s race to Carl Edwards, Stewart famously declared “second sucks,” then went on to become “first” and win the 2011 Sprint Cup championship. After their struggles at Daytona and Phoenix, the organization simply hopes to turn its luck around in Sin City.

UPDATE: Stewart-Haas Racing took to its official Twitter account on Tuesday to explain their findings about Stewart's car not re-firing Sunday:

"Some updates following the Phoenix race weekend where #Tony Stewart & the No.14 team experienced an issue where the car would not restart... The issue was diagnosed within the McLaren relay box and was not attributed to the ECU. It was determined a breaker inside the relay box was tripped. It was not due to an electrical problem. #NASCAR & McLaren are aware of this and immediately began working with us and Hendrick Motorsports to better understand & address the issue. We appreciate the collaboration and expect a resolution by Las Vegas. We don't anticipate further issues."


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