There are many ways to win a race in NASCAR, but the best way to do it is to be out front, in the right place, at the right time. Matt Kenseth won his first Daytona 500 that way, and now Tony Stewart found himself there in California, the land of sunshine and surf, where it almost never rains. Mother Nature showed us her feelings at Daytona earlier this year about NASCAR, now it seems she is really a Tony Stewart fan after all.
As raindrops slowed the race on Lap 124, Stewart, the race leader, faked a move toward pit road but stayed on the track. That move made many wonder if he actually caught Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson off guard.
“I don’t think that I faked him out,” Stewart said of Hamlin. “I’m sure he had made his decision already — looked good, though.”
In a race that only had a single caution, which only flew because of the rain, Stewart played the game well and was definitely in the right place at the right time. However, Stewart was quick to give the credit to his new Crew Chief, Steve Addington, for the calls made on pit row, and his crew for performing without error. And when asked what the secret was for him to win 2 races this early in the season, a feat he has not accomplished in his 14 seasons in NASCAR, Stewart kept pointing to his team and all their hard work.
“I don’t know, but I like it,” he said. “I’m really proud of [crew chief] Steve Addington and all of our guys. This Office Depot Chevy was bad fast.”
Kyle Busch decided to stay out and play follow the leader on Tony Stewart, which turned out to be an excellent choice, landing him in 2nd place on the grid. While he hasn’t had the best finishes so far this season, a second place still doesn’t feel like a win for one of NASCAR’s winningest active drivers. The timing of the finish was actually good for Busch who had rubbed the wall just before the caution came out, and was losing momentum and speed on the track.
“I wish we would have been able to race the whole thing, on the one hand,” he said, “but, on the other hand, I’m kind of glad we’re not, because we have a little bit of damage that slowed us down there.”
“Trying to run back with Stewart’s lap times, that’s when I was trying too hard, too close to the fence, got myself in trouble there — caught the right-side a little bit.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr continuds to show his Hendrick teammates how to be consistent. Staying out on the caution netted him a 3rd place finish on the grid. That finish, has him sitting in third place in the points overall, as consistently strong runs by NASCAR’s most popular driver have made him the class of what has long been NASCAR’s best organization.
“We drove the car up to fifth before the weather came. We had been watching the weather all day. We felt certain if it started to rain, it wasn’t going to stop,” Earnhardt said. “We made the right choice by staying out and building ourselves into the top three.”
- Dale Jr finished 3rd thanks to the rain shortened race. He has also been the most consistent in his finishes of all the cars in the Hendrick stables this season.
“I’m really happy,” he said. “I’m performing better. Most of the credit has to go to Steve and the team. Those guys did a great job today on pit road. We had some really good stops. Steve is doing an amazing job. He deserves most of the credit for how well we’re running. He’s giving me really good cars, cars that are fun to drive, relatively easy to drive.”
“Compared to the last several years,” he added, “they’ve gotten easier.”
The rain was also a godsend for Jimmie Johnson and his #48 Lowe’s machine. He had already committed to coming in on the caution flag as he had starting smoking from the engine area during the final caution laps. Somehow an oil line fitting had come loose and oil was spraying on the block, under the hood. Had the race gone back to green Johnson would have either blown up, or lost a ton of laps while they fixed the car behind the wall.
“I really don’t know what had happened,” Johnson said during the red flag. “I was just idling along and my friends pulled up alongside of me and were pointing. They said, ‘You’re smoking.’ I heard it over the radio and I could obviously see and smell it, but I don’t know what really caused it yet. It’s just a wild change of events, because when I came to pit road and took four tires, I wanted it to dry up real quick. Now I’m sitting here praying for rain.”
And that’s exactly what he got. “If we did go back to green-flag racing, we would be multiple laps down,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “We don’t really know what happened to the car just yet. We’ve got to get it in here and take a look at it.”
Next week takes us to Martinsville, a track where Stewart dominated in the fall race. Can he do it again and maintain the momentum from his championship run? Only time, and the racetrack, can tell.