Tony Stewart has a reputation as a bit of a slow starter in the Sprint Cup championship: last year, he didn't win a single race until September. But he's already determined that this year will be different, and has proved it by heading to victory lane in only the third race of the season after winning a nailbiting series of late-race restart shootouts against Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski at Las Vegas.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been in control of the race early on, slipping into the lead at the green flag past polesitter Kasey Kahne and staying there up to the first round of pit stops on lap 44. He caught a major break at this point when a caution came out (for new boy Timmy Hill hitting the wall in turn 2) while he was already on pit road, which allowed him to take back the lead for the restart. By contrast, Kurt Busch hadn't been as lucky and was just too late onto pit road after the caution came out, meaning that he had to take a wave-around to get back on the lead lap and ended up in 28th place for his troubles.
Earnhardt was in the lead again (after a scare from a squirrely Kevin Harvick taking the green flag alongside him) and led through to the next caution on lap 73 triggered by a spin by David Reutimann as the #10 tried to get into pit road. This time the pit stops were not as helpful to Earnhardt, who fell to 16th place for the restart after opting to take four tyres where those ahead were mainly just taking two. That meant that the top five at the restart consisted of Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, who had already been up to second place before some debris on the front grille air intake had forced him to drop back and use the rear of Biffle's car to sweep it off before the engine overheated.
Kenseth quickly took the lead and held it for 20 laps, and then Jimmie Johnson moved to the front in an fast-looking #48. Johnson's race had already been a pretty outstanding one, since he'd had to start from the back of the 43-car field after wrecking his car in Saturday practice and having to resort to the back-up. He'd taken his time sort out the car's set-up in the early laps but once he had, he'd moved smoothly up the running order and just got better and better until finally he hit the front. By contrast, Kyle Busch - who also started from the back after similarly wrecking his race car in practice on Saturday - had shot off at the start of the race like a rocket and seemed on a mission to lead the race, but instead plateaued around the edges of the top ten for the remainder of the day after sliding on fluids dropped by Travis Kvapil's blown engine and brushing the wall on lap 127.
Kvapil's blow-up triggered the third caution of the day, after which Tony Stewart took the restart alongside Jimmie Johnson. Stewart swept past for the lead through turns 1 and 2, and would hold on to the top spot for the next 41 laps through to a sequence of green flag pit stops; once things settled down again Stewart was promptly back in charge for another 50 laps including through the next round of pit stops under a debris caution on lap 204.
Stewart was finally deposed when he pitted under a second debris caution on lap 229, when Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski opted to try a different fuel strategy and remained out on track attempting to lean out the gas to make the finish. No matter: Stewart was too fast for them both, shooting underneath the leaders and going briefly three-wide before winning a fierce but brief tussle with Keselowski for the lead again, then going on to pull out a safety margin of over a second over the Penske driver.
“I had to go, man ... I knew Matt [Kenseth] had four tyres and Greg [Biffle] and those guys had better tyres than we did," he said of the threat of the cars immediately behind him at the green flag. "I knew as long as we could get clean air, we could at least hold them off a little bit. I just didn't know we were going to be able to hold them off the whole run."
It proved to be the first of four late rapid fire restarts that Stewart would have to win in order to make it to victory lane. The next would be triggered by Landon Cassill blowing an engine on lap 250, but when the green flag came out Stewart found that this time he had nothing to fear from Keselowski, who was clearly badly off the pace. The blue deuce had to head to pit lane with a fuel pressure problem, and Keselowski ended up eight laps off the lead and no threat whatsoever.
But that didn't mean it was plain sailing from here for Stewart: to the contrary, he now had Jimmie Johnson all over him with what looked like the fastest race car on the track. The two barely had time to size each other up, however, before the seventh caution of the day was sparked by Kurt Busch having a hard smash (caused by the #51 running over a piece of debris and cutting a tyre) coming out of turn 2 on lap 255. Another Busch would trigger the eighth and final caution of the day almost immediately after the next restart: Kyle spun sideways on turn 4 in a similar fashion to the way that he had on Saturday, but fortunately this time he kept the #18 off the wall and did no notable damage to the car. It did, however, put him a lap down and classified in 23rd position by the end.
This latest caution had taken the race to a restart on lap 263 and a four lap shootout between Stewart and Johnson for the win. Stewart once again aced the restart and retained the lead into the first turn, but behind the leading duo the third-placed man Matt Kenseth took a hard hit against the wall down the backstretch while battling with Carl Edwards and it looked for a moment that the race was about to go into a green-white-chequered scenario. But Kenseth's car was off the racing line and the race officials were able to keep the track green, allowing the #14/#48 duel to run its course.
"Matt spun his tires a little bit and I got a run on him," said Edwards. "Then Greg and I went around him, and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible."
"Carl just laid back and got by me three-wide, and then it just didn't seem like there was a lot of room getting into 1," explained Kenseth, who was classified in 22nd position. "Then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don't really know what happened."
Kasey Kahne passing Kenseth on the outside was the final straw, sucking the #17 into the wall; Kahne's car also received damage in the incident and ended up in 19th place in the final classification.
Johnson had a run on Stewart coming out of turn 4, but Stewart had it covered. Johnson then tried running high up on the progressive banking through the turns of the remaining lap in the hope of slingshotting past for the lead - but Stewart had that covered, too. In fact, Stewart had it sown up: he crossed the line almost half a second up on Johnson, who could do nothing except enjoy the front row seat as the reigning Cup champion took the chequered flag.
It was Stewart's first win in 2012, and his first since the stunning run in the 2011 season finale at Homestead-Miami that had won him his third Cup championship. It was his 45th victory in 467 starts but remarkably his first win at Ls Vegas Motor Speedway in 14 attempts.
"That was the great thing about our race car: I think we were hands-down the strongest car on restarts of getting to turn 1 from the restart point," said a beaming Stewart in victory lane.
Even so, Stewart admitted that it had been hard work and all rather nerve wracking with so many late cautions: "Every time the caution came out, you cringed knowing you were giving them another opportunity to take a shot,” he said. “It seemed like everybody got their turn at it, just a different person on each restart that we had to hold off."
“I just blew it ... He got away from me," was Johnson's own verdict on the final laps. "The next to the last start, I felt like I got a good one and he still cruised away," he said, adding: "I drove my guts out, but just didn't get it done."
Behind Johnson, Greg Biffle was never far from the front and had a solid and largely uneventful run to third place, which puts him to the top of the Sprint Cup points championship 10pts ahead of Kevin Harvick, after former championship front-runner Denny Hamlin slumped back to third place after a lacklustre run at Vegas that even saw him lapped by the leaders during one of the lengthier green flag spells.
Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top six, while Jamie McMurray's eighth place for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing was particularly commendable and noteworthy considering he'd been as sick as a dog all day.
"He showed up this morning and he was sick. I don't think he slept last night. He hasn't eaten," said McMurray's crew chief, Kevin 'Bono' Manion, after the event. "For Jamie to come through like he did for us today was really big like he didn't want to talk on the radio and you know when you're not feeling good, you don't want nothing. And so, he could barely talk after the race. He just had to go, you know?"
Early race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been left frustrated and finished in tenth place after never managing to re-find that early strong performance once he'd dropped away from the front during the second round of pit stops. He was especially annoyed with Mark Martin, until last year his team mate at Hendrick Motorsports, over what he saw as a breach of good racing manners that ended up with the two making contact.
"To me, personally, there is an unwritten etiquette that when the guy is running the top even if you are clearing him or passing him ... you stay low," he explained. "Don't knock a half second off my lap time being a jerk about it. Stay low. You are going to get it in the next corner and the position is going to be yours. Don't pull up in front of somebody when they are going to come off the corner ten miles an hour faster."
While insisting that "I don't have a problem with Mark and have so much respect for him," Earnhardt admitted that the incident has been the final straw for him near the end of a disappointing race after such a strong start earlier in the afternoon. A few laps later - just 25 laps from the end - Earnhardt ended up making contact with the back of Martin's car and sending the #55 into the wall.
"I didn't really mean to put him in the wall but from the cosmetic standpoint it didn't look like it hurt his car," said Earnhardt. "I felt like I was pretty frustrated at the moment before that happened, and that just kind of really sent me over the edge there.
"We should have finished better than we did today and I was just frustrated at that point," he added. "I am sure he feels a different way about it but I think we definitely disagreed right there at that moment."
Martin left the speedway without commenting on the incident, while in victory lane Tony Stewart was celebrating victory.
An early win in 2012 seemed an especially important statement for Stewart to make, given the attention to his controversial decision to ditch his crew chief Darian Grubb with whom he won his 2011 Cup title. Grubb was back in victory lane last weekend at Phoenix with new charge Denny Hamlin leading to renewed chatter that Stewart had made a bad and hasty move, but victory in Las Vegas firmly puts Stewart's new partnership with Steve Addington on the map and answers all the doubters.
"You guys know I never worry about what everybody else says anyway," said Stewart, insisting that the chatter over his crew chief decision never affected him. "I'd like to think over 32 years of racing we've made some pretty decent decisions over that period of time," but admitted that "It was a tough decision to leave with Darian.
"From day one we told Steve that we had an awesome scenario at the end of the year, winning the championship," stewart continued. "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. I think it was a pretty cool two weeks," Stewart summed up.
"I was really happy for Darian last week to get that win," he added. "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."
Certainly the odds on Tony Stewart retaining his stunning Cup championship this season just shortened considerably. And no one would be surprised if Hamlin and Grubb didn't prove to be among his chief rivals when it comes down to the Chase later in the season.Full race results
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