12 March 2012
Stewart quick to return to winning ways
Tony Stewart stunned everyone in the 2011 Chase to claim the championship: now he's keeping up his winning form in 2012 by seeing off Jimmie Johnson in Vegas.
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.
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