By JEFF WOLFE
One saying in auto racing is that it doesn’t matter where you start, but where you finish.
Tony Stewart put a bit of twist on that Sunday with his NASCAR Sprint Cup win at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was the defending champion’s restarts that put him where he wanted to finish, his first victory of the season and first at Las Vegas.
“Every time the caution came out, you cringed knowing you were giving them another opportunity to take a shot,” Stewart said of his 41st career victory. “It seemed like everybody got their turn at it. It was just [a] different person on each restart that we had to hold off.”
Stewart used a quick getaway four times in the last 58 laps to clear the field and hang on to the lead. The most notable restart was with 34 laps to go. While almost all of the lead lap cars came into the pits for fuel-only stops, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski each decided to gamble on fuel. So, with Stewart on the inside of the second row for that restart, he went below the white line to pass the two leaders to take the lead for good.
“It was nice to be on the inside,” Stewart said. “We had a lot of real estate down there. We almost got too good a restart because I got such a good run on Brad. Knowing we can’t pull out of line till we cross the start/finish line, I almost got to him too quick. If we would have got there a foot earlier, I was going to have to check up and we probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to get underneath him like that.”
Stewart’s final restart came with four laps to go with Jimmie Johnson as the chief challenger. As he had done on the other restarts, Stewart chose the low side of the double-file line. With Stewart apparently using some of the sprint and midget car tactics he learned in his early days of racing, that allowed him to get the jump on the field.
“Our car was so, so strong today on restarts,” Stewart said. “We could get to the start/finish line and get to turn one so good today, that was a big key in holding these guys off. It seemed like we were a little bit weaker than the guys behind us for the first three laps. Then the next three laps, we would break even. After six or seven laps, we would start pulling away.”
Johnson challenged Stewart on the first lap of that final restart, but couldn’t get past him. After that, Stewart opened up about a three-car gap on the way to the win.
“The last two restarts, the second to the last, I just blew it,” Johnson said. “He got away from me. The last start, I felt like I got a good one. He still cruised away. My only chance was to be at his outside through one and two. I didn’t have that opportunity. He had the lane at that point. Drove my guts out, but just didn’t get it done.”
Just getting a win was a bit of redemption for Stewart in a couple of ways. It was at this race last year where Stewart led 163 of the 267 laps only to finish second because of late-race strategy by then-crew chief Darian Grubb. Of course, the No. 14 team recovered and went on to win five of the last ten races to capture his third title. But Stewart had already decided early in the Chase that he was going to part ways with Grubb.
That left for a bit of an awkward situation, with the team owner/championship driver firing the championship crew chief. Stewart brought in veteran crew chief Steve Addington to replace Grubb. Then Grubb and driver Denny Hamlin won at Phoenix last week bringing the change into question again.
“It was a tough decision to leave with Darian,” Stewart said. “From day one, we told Steve that we had an awesome scenario at the end of the year, winning the championship. I guess it’s easy for us to not feel that pressure from our side. You understand why the pressure – that Steve puts the pressure on himself in that scenario. We told him from day one we’re going to go have fun, race hard, take what it gives us.
“Today was more a day for me personally of winning at a track I haven’t won at. For Steve, it’s getting that first points win for us.”
But Stewart said he was happy for Grubb and Hamlin last week.
“ I think it was a pretty cool two weeks,” he said. “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 get a win last week. It’s neat to see me and Steve get a win this week. 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.”
Clearly one of the keys to running strong Sunday was to find a way to get out front into clean air. That’s a big reason the restarts were so important.
“As time goes on, the sport evolves, technology gets closer and closer, the rules get closer and closer, that’s a variable that’s free, is air,” Stewart said. “If you can get out front and get in clean air, it’s always going to be an advantage. It’s been that way in Formula One, IndyCar, sports car racing.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. took advantage of that clean air early on. He led 65 of the first 68 laps and was relatively unchallenged. But when crew chief Steve Letarte decided to go with four tires and a big chunk of the field took two tires on pit stops after a caution on lap 72, Junior came out in 16th-place and never led again.
“When were fast and leading the race the car was really tight,” said Earnhardt Jr., who led 52 laps in all of the 2011 season and has now not won in 132 races. “The track sort of went past us as far as the handling goes. I didn’t keep up with the track. I should have given Steve a little more information. If we keep doing that every week, we’ll be right there. We’re gonna keep trying.”
Behind Stewart and Johnson was Greg Biffle in third. Biffle’s already has as many top-5 finishes as he had all of 2011. Ryan Newman was fourth, while Carl Edwards rounded out the top-5.
Clint Bowyer held on to finish sixth, while Paul Menard was seventh. Jamie McMurray was eighth, while Trevor Bayne and Earnhardt, Jr. rounded out the top-10.
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