Sunday, April 29, 2012

Smoke Signals: Final caution hurts Stewart's shot at Richmond win

Tony Stewart leads the way at Richmond.
Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR
After struggling at Texas and Kansas, Stewart-Haas Racing came oh-so-close to claiming its fourth win of the season at Richmond on Saturday – until the final caution flag.

Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart had victory in his grasp until the Capital City 400’s fifth caution came out for debris. After a slow pit stop cost Stewart the race off pit road, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobile 1 Chevrolet lost precious ground on the last restart, relegating him to a third-place finish at the 0.75-mile short track.

Meanwhile, teammate Ryan Newman battled an ill-handling racecar that the No. 39 Army Reserve Chevrolet team could never get quite right, finishing the night in 15th.

Stewart started the weekend with a win in Denny Hamlin’s Short Track Showdown. He qualified 22nd for Saturday’s Capital City 400 at his favorite racetrack, and within 80 laps Stewart had cracked the top 10. Stewart took the lead for the first time on Lap 201, leading a total of 118 laps.

Stewart was involved in the night’s biggest controversy when NASCAR black-flagged Carl Edwards for jumping the restart on Lap 318. At the time of the fourth caution, there were only three cars on the lead lap: Johnson, Stewart and Edwards. Stewart pitted one lap prior to the caution. Race leader Johnson had pitted when the caution came out, but a tire violation sent him to the tail end of the lead lap. Edwards was the only car who had not pitted yet under the cycle of green flag stops, so he did so under caution.

With Johnson forced to the back and Edwards pitting, this meant Stewart was the leader and Edwards second. But Edwards’ spotter told him he was the leader after he said he talked with a NASCAR official. With one lap left before the restart, Edwards passed Stewart at the start-finish line, which the scoring monitors picked up. As a result, Edwards was scored first on the pylon. Believing he was the leader, Edwards gassed it before the start of the restart box, jumping the restart. Stewart spun his tires and was nearly five car-lengths behind Edwards when the driver of the No. 99 crossed the start-finish line.

NASCAR black-flagged Edwards, saying he jumped the restart and that Stewart was the race leader.

“We were the first one to line up and we were the leader on the board. So I don't know how much clearer it could be that we were the leader,” Stewart said after the race. “If that was the case, then they should have put the caution out and given him the opportunity to choose the lane that he wanted. It's a miscommunication between upstairs and the drivers.”

Stewart sailed away from the field and looked assured to catch his third win of 2011. The driver of the No. 14 built a commanding lead of more than 2 seconds over second-place Kyle Busch with 25 laps to go. But on Lap 386, a caution came out for debris in Turn 2 – not at all what Stewart wanted. Stewart pitted with the leaders, but his crew had some trouble on the right side of the car. After the slow pit stop, Busch beat Stewart for the lead off pit road.

Stewart restarted second with nine laps to go, but he spun his tires again and couldn’t get going. It was an uncharacteristic night for Stewart, who is known for his strong restarts. He fell back a spot and finished the race in third.

Though his performance was a pickup from the last two weeks, Stewart was upset by the late turn of events.

“Well, when the caution is for a plastic (water) bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good about losing that one, I mean. And we gave it away on pit road. So we did everything we could to throw it away; it got taken away from us,” Stewart said.

“That’s the best car I’ve had a Richmond in a long time. So I’m really proud of that and (crew chief) Steve Addington and I’m proud of our guys. But we’ve got some work to do on pit stops right now. I don’t know what their malfunction was but I’m pretty ticked off about it tonight.”

On Saturday Newman finished 15th at Richmond after two consecutive finishes in the 20s at Texas and Kansas.

After rolling out 12th on the grid, Newman reported a loose racecar that was tight in the center of the corners. Despite a series of adjustments, the car improved little. Newman spent the night just outside the top 10, unable to make any headway.

“I think we had a pretty good Army Reserve Chevrolet,” Newman said. “We just couldn’t quite get it to the point where we could roll the center of the corner well enough to compete with the top-10 guys.

“We’ll get back to the shop and get ready for Talladega and hope that we complete our mission, which is to win the race. It wasn’t the finish we were hoping for,” Newman said.

Nine races into the 2011 season, Stewart-Haas Racing continues its stay in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup point standings. Stewart holds steady at eighth, 31 points behind leader Greg Biffle. Though Stewart has two wins, his inconsistency has cost him ground in the standings. Newman maintains the 10th spot, 60 points behind Biffle.

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