Coming into this weekend's Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the word most commonly used by everyone to describe Tony Stewart was "frustrated."
"Yes, he is frustrated," agreed Stewart's team mate Ryan Newman on Friday. "For that matter, I'm ahead of him in points and I'm frustrated, too."
"I am frustrated because I keep having to answer the question," said a frankly surly Stewart in the routine round of pre-race interviews on Friday. "'Are you happy when things aren't going the way you like it to go? Makes you frustrated, doesn't it?' So yes, we're frustrated."
The weekend's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon was widely described as make-or-break for Stewart-Haas's season and for any hopes either driver might still have of making the Chase. Partly that's because New Hampshire has always been a strong venue for Stewart, who has won on the low-banked one mile "true" oval twice and only missed out in last year's autumn race because of a mis-call on the fuel pit strategy.
As team owner, Stewart recently took action about Stewart-Haas' malaise by shaking up personnel
, axing one of the team's senior stalwarts in director of competition Bobby Hutchens at the start of June. But it hadn't seemed to do anything to improve the situation, with Stewart even starting to talk about not wanting to make the cut for the Chase at all if the team wasn't in a position to win races and be genuinely competitive in the Cup championship play-offs.
"Ultimately, we want to be first or second in either order, so yeah, I'm sure he's frustrated," Newman said. "This is crunch time and this has usually been his time, but it hasn't been this year."
Against that background, Stewart-Haas' front row lock-out in qualifying at Loudon on Friday afternoon raised a few eyebrows and came as rather a surprise, as both Newman and Stewart broke the old track record for the circuit in the process. Of course, claiming first and second place on the starting grid is a long way from genuine race success, but it was a leap in performance that got people wondering.
As the Stewart-Haas cars led the field to the green flag in the gorgeous Sunday afternoon sunshine and pleasant 70 degree Fahrenheit summer temperatures, there was still a very long way (301 laps to be precise) between a fleeting qualifying success and lasting race triumph. And history was not on Stewart-Haas' side, as it had been over five years since the last time the top two cars in qualifying had taken the chequered flag in the race in the same order (Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch at Pocono in June 2006, since you're wondering.)
Kurt Busch made an early attempt to break up the Stewart-Haas front row, but Tony Stewart saw him off and then took the lead from Newman to lead from there until the first caution of the race on lap 29 for debris that came out just as Stewart was starting to put straggling backmarkers like Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell a lap down.
Already we were seeing good progress for Jimmie Johnson (recovering from a poor qualifying position that saw him start from 28th), AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski who gained four spots in the ensuing pit stops under caution. Less happy were Juan Montoya and also Kevin Harvick, who seemed stuck going nowhere at the bottom of the top 20.
But without a doubt the man having the worst of things was Kyle Busch who had a scare with the wall on lap 9 and then took two visits in pit lane under the caution - once for major set-up changes, the second for four tyres - that put him to the back. "We made some big changes there on that pit stop," he explained. "We came back and got four just to make sure we got all the changes we wanted to."
Despite all that work he seemed no happier in the next green flag stint, and on lap 59 his right front tyre blew and the #18 headed into the wall at turn 2 to bring out the second caution of the day. "Just blew a bead, I guess, transferring too much brake heat through the wheel," he said, referring to the tyre edge.
He denied that the crash had been due to any contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "Nice try at making up a story," Busch replied. "There's contact with everybody out there. It had nothing to do with anybody else ... Nothing else besides that." The repairs to the car took some 76 laps and meant that Busch would finish in 36th place, dropping from the lead of the Cup points standings to fifth some 20pts off the new leader as a result.
In the meantime, Jamie McMurray had briefly led the race before being ousted by Newman, but it was really Kurt Busch who took charge between the two yellows. After Busch's crash it was Mark Martin who led the restart on lap 65, but once again Newman was quick to take charge again with Tony Stewart slotting back into second place through to the third caution (for debris) on lap 100.
Jimmie Johnson opted to stay out of pit lane for temporary track position while those that did come in opted mainly for two tyres, which did not seem to suit the Stewart-Haas duo nearly as well at this point and they slipped back, allowing Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne to take up the top three positions as Johnson started to fade on worn rubber and eventually come in for an off-sync green flag stop on lap 135.
Gordon's lead was all the more impressive given that his #24 was having battery problems and was nonetheless the fastest car on the track during this midrace stage. "We knew we were losing the power to the engine from an alternator standpoint," he said. "These new gauges have warning lights on them that the whole gauge lights up." The problems meant he had to shut down the cooling system, including the cooling to the brakes.
Surprisingly Gordon opted not to switch out the twin batteries at the next round of stops that took place after Brad Keselowski cut a tyre in turn 3 on lap 144, a particularly useful caution for Jimmie Johnson as it gave him a much-needed wave around. Gordon would rue the decision to risk the batteries when he lost all power shortly after the restart on lap 154 and dropped to the back of the lead lap; he was saved when a rapid fifth caution materialised for debris on lap 161 allowing him to come in for the battery exchange under yellow.
Kurt Busch had taken the lead during the previous round of pit stops and kept it despite a strong challenge at the restart on lap 169 from Brian Vickers, but the race was quickly back under yellow with the sixth caution of the day after Denny Hamlin got helped into a spin by AJ Allmendinger. Again, the main beneficiary of the caution was Jeff Gordon, who got the lucky dog back onto the lead lap after his lengthy battery exchange pit stop.
Busch was still leading at the restart on lap 174 and this time the green flag racing lasted only ten laps before Mark Martin spun out of 14th position with a cut tyre in turn 2. Kurt continued to lead at the restart on lap 189, but Tony Stewart was now awake again and charging, passing Carl Edwards for second on lap 191 and then taking the lead from Busch down the inside on lap 194, his team mate Ryan Newman not far behind in fourth.
At this point teams were looking ahead to the end game and feverishly calculating fuel loads and possible tyre strategies: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been religiously taking four new tyres at every pit stop so far while Juan Montoya's #42 team were planning on two tyres only from here on, Busch's #22 team were planning fuel strategies to see off the #99 of Edwards, while Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were now running 6th and 7th after their earlier problems although somewhat off-sync in terms of stops. But Tony Stewart was looking particularly strong, having found the best compromise between handling through the corner apex (albeit describing the #14 as a little tight) versus getting out of the corner cleanly and allowing him to put the power down early giving him maximum speed and chances for overtaking traffic.
A debris caution on lap 214 allowed everyone the opportunity to pit under yellow, with a wide variety of strategies emerging including Joey Logano opting to stay out altogether and assume the lead and Clint Bowyer gaining ten spots with a fuel-only approach. Jimmie Johnson must have wished he could have gone fuel-only too when his own pit stop ended up with a missing lugnut, an irritatingly frequent recurring theme for the #48 over the past year which meant he had to return to pit lane and fall to the back of the lead lap.
At the restart, Marcos Ambrose surged past Logano to lead lap 222 with Montoya looking strong behind them, but Brian Vickers' strong day was about to come to a premature end when he spun on the front straight and hit the wall on lap 225. Vickers headed to the garage for lengthy repairs, Logano finally headed in for fuel, Mark Martin got the free pass and Clint Bowyer assumed the lead followed by Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton.
Bowyer's old tyres were no match for Newman's fresh ones and the polesitter duly reassumed the lead, with Greg Biffle moving past Bowyer into second place. At this point the critical factor was emerging as fuel, with Biffle being told he was eight laps short of going full distance and Kurt Busch in fourth similarly advised he was five laps shy of making it to the chequered flag.
If it was a caution they needed then Jimmie Johnson duly obliged by spinning on turn 2 on lap 240 after contact with Juan Montoya, bringing out the tenth (and ultimately final) yellow of the afternoon. "We had some issues on pit road," said Johnson, "And then the #42 - I don't think of the three times he's wrecked me it's been intentional, but he's out of mulligans and I've had enough of, 'Oh, I'm sorry, and you're spun out.' It's happened way to often."
Greg Biffle decided there was no chance of being able to make it all the way to the end without a further stop and duly came in, as did Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had been suffering a suspected tyre rub on his left front; unfortunately he then picked up a tyre violation that put him to the back of the leap lap in 33rd. Earnhardt had already been unhappy with the change of tyre compounds this weekend, which Tony Stewart had earlier praised as being "grippier" and the key to his team's qualifying success but which met with less success on the #88.
"We struggled all weekend," admitted Earnhardt. "In practice we just didn't really have the speed we had last year. We've just got to figure out why. What's the difference in this tyre and try to figure it out. I mean, every damn week they change the tyre ... I guess [NASCAR] is getting on 'em about how they build them or something, and they had to bring a new one here. Some kind of new construction. I didn't like it."
Stewart-Haas had learned from last year's autumn race at New Hampshire and knew that track position was crucial at this point of proceedings, so Newman stayed out in the lead ahead of Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin as the race resumed on lap 245 with 56 laps to go to the chequered. Busch was looking strong going into the corners, but critically Newman was faster out of them which allowed him to get the power down and pull away out of trouble to keep the lead.
The focus from this point was on the continuing surge of Jeff Gordon who was back up to fourth, and a strong recovery by Jimmie Johnson after the lugnut and spin problems. There was also the relentless rise of Tony Stewart, back into the top ten after the restart and passing Carl Edwards (who had dropped back to fifth) 20 laps later.
Most people however were having to run with one eye on the fuel gauge: Regan Smith, Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya were all among those to run dry before the end. A rare exception was Newman himself who didn't seem to be sparing the horsepower as he pulled out a lead of nearly 2s over Kurt Busch before the #22 was forced to give up the chase and fell to fifth in extreme fuel conservation mode - he would eventually run dry on the last lap and finish in tenth. That allowed Tony Stewart up another place, then past Gordon on lap 286 and finally swooping on Denny Hamlin for second place on lap 294. In the remaining seven laps Stewart put his foot down and did everything he could to close on his team mate who was now encountering lapped traffic and worrying about his fuel load, which allowed the #14 to cut the lead back to under a second.
"I can promise you, I didn't leave anything out there," Stewart said. "That was as hard as I could run 'til the end. I couldn't get the rest of the way. I couldn't get any further than that."
And indeed, Newman had just enough pace - and just enough fuel - to make it home in first place with Stewart in second, recreating that qualifying order performance and blasting Stewart-Haas to their first 1-2 finish in the team's three season history.
"One hell of a day, boys. One hell of a day!" yelled a proud and no longer remotely frustrated team owner over the radio. Labelling it "a perfect weekend for Stewart-Haas Racing," Stewart went on: "I'm so damn proud I can't see straight. I'm proud of my buddy there standing on top of his car. He deserved it. He did an awesome job this weekend."
"We backed up what everybody said we couldn't back up, and that was our qualifying effort on Friday ... We knew we were capable of it," said an emotional Newman as he dedicated the win by the #39 - sponsored by the US Army - to military personnel and their friends and relatives. "We were so close so many times this year."
Stewart wanted to give special thanks to his pit crew chief Darian Grubb who had been ailing this weekend. "They told him yesterday he's got pneumonia," Stewart said. "He's battling through a weekend like this, never missed a beat on the box today."
Denny Hamlin hung on to finish in third place, admitting that his own crew chief Mick Ford had been "screaming that we've got to back off. At that point, you have to think about the risk versus reward ... As bad as I wanted to go up there and race those guys, I had to make the smart move and finish the race."
Sadly there was one late-race casualty when Jeff Gordon's fightback ended with a blown right front tyre on the final lap, which meant that he fell from fourth to 11th in the final seconds. "What did not happen to us today?" said Gordon. "It was a pretty crazy day for us, but certainly a lot to smile about with how great our car was. My goodness, our car was so good ... That long of a run on tyres, I should have been a little bit more conservative," he suggested: "I saw Hamlin starting to check up trying to save fuel and we had a shot of getting to him, so I started charging the corner a little bit harder and we put too much temperature and that's what blew the right front tyre."
Gordon suggested that his earlier battery problems which had forced him to turn off the car's cooling systems may well have played a part in the tyre failure at the end. "We had so many issues thrown at us today that I wasn't really thinking a whole lot about what kind of temperature we were putting into the brakes when those blowers were off or when we had to turn them on and turn them off," he said.
Instead, Joey Logano's earlier off-sync pit strategy was rewarded with fourth place just ahead of the recovering Jimmie Johnson in the #48. "I'm arguing with myself whether I should be frustrated or proud," said Johnson. "We finished awfully good with everything we went through today."
Although he was understandably angry with Montoya - "It's painful to get spun out on the race track" - Johnson's main source of annoyance seemed to lie more with his team after yet another lugnut issue. "When it's key times for stops, we have mistakes. I've been real patient all year trying to build. I'm running out of patience. I care for these guys deeply for going over the wall and I know they're very talented guys, but we're getting into my livelihood in a little bit when we get into this Chase and we've got to be right."
Up front, Ryan Newman had richly deserved the win, leading the most laps of anyone - 119 of the race total of 301 compared with 66 for Kurt Busch and 48 for Tony Stewart. It's his 15th Cup win in 351 starts, ending a 47-race winless streak, making him the 13th different winner in the 19 races so far in the 2011 season (there were only 13 different winners in the whole of 2010) and marks the first time that a team has claimed the top two spots in both qualifying and the race since Hendrick Motorsports managed it at the Daytona 500 all the way back in 1989 with Darrell Waltrip and Ken Schrader.
It's not a magic wand for the team - as with Penske's recent resurgence, the proof will only come if they can build on it and make this sort of strong showing a routine week-in, week-out occurrence on a range of circuits. Nor does it miraculously revive the Stewart and Newman's Chase chances (Newman is provisionally in with eighth place and now has a win that may see him claim one of the wildcards if it comes to it, but Stewart is still on the outside looking in with 11th.)
But really, when it comes to sudden sightings of the light at the end of the tunnel, it doesn't come any more blinding than this 1-2 for Tony Stewart and his race winning driver Ryan Newman. They'll be hoping it gives them just the momentum they need going into one of the biggest Cup races of the year, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two weeks time.Full race results
Full Sprint Cup points standings