Stewart’s Press On Point Leader Continues
Tony Stewart kept the pressure on championship point leader Carl Edwards by leading five times for a race-high 160 laps en route to a third-place finish in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500k NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway.
Stewart came into Phoenix only three points behind Edwards in the championship standings, and even though Edwards finished just one spot ahead of Stewart, the one bonus point Stewart earned for leading the most laps kept the title race tight heading into next Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“We led the most laps and did everything we could do. We missed it by two spots, but it was still an awesome day for the Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy,” Stewart said. “We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. We have a third and two wins in the last three races, so we’re going to keep the pressure on him (Edwards) and we’ll make him sweat it out.”
Three races ago at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Stewart overpowered five-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in the final two laps to score his third win of the season. In the next race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Stewart led seven times for a race-high 173 en route to the ninth back-to-back victory of his career. Along the way, Stewart lopped 16 points off Edwards’ lead.
And after starting eighth at Phoenix – one spot ahead of Edwards – Stewart picked up right where he left off at Texas. After only 36 laps, Stewart was leading the 43-car field. He set the pace for seven laps until pit stops jumbled the running order. It proved of little matter, however, as Stewart proceeded to lead for four more stints – laps 46-94, 98-157, 182-221 and 291-294.
The race’s second-to-last round of pit stops came during a caution period on lap 221. Stewart took four tires and fuel, with the lone adjustment being a tweak to the air pressure in the right-front tire.
Stewart emerged in third place, first among the drivers who opted for four tires. Paul Menard and Kurt Busch restarted 1-2 after taking only two tires. Edwards was just behind Stewart in fourth.
“We got out of balance on the second-to-last stop and just lost that little bit that we needed to stay up there and keep Carl honest,” Stewart said. “We just made an air pressure change and got too far on it.”
Stewart fell to fourth while Edwards made a charge for the lead, finally taking the top spot on lap 279 and staying there for 12 circuits around the 1-mile oval. Soon, however, a final round of pit stops was necessary to fuel each car to the finish.
After leading laps 291-294, Stewart pitted for fuel only. He returned to the track in fourth, and then doggedly pursued third-place Jeff Burton, finally passing him on the next-to-last lap.
Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne, silently strong all day, augmented his fast racecar with smart pit strategy to take the lead on lap 299. Edwards was a distant second, with Burton serving as his buffer against Stewart.
Once Stewart passed Burton, the buffer was gone. Stewart’s one bonus point for leading a lap and second bonus point for leading the most laps kept Edwards in check. Even though Edwards finished ahead of Stewart, Stewart’s bonus point tally of two to one kept Edwards’ margin the same as it was when the two entered Phoenix – a scant three points.
“We had an awesome day. We just came up two spots shy,” said Stewart after recording his eighth top-five finish of 2011 and his eighth top-five result in 20 career Sprint Cup starts at Phoenix. “I don’t know how you could’ve asked for a better day, really. We led the most laps and we were on the same pace we were last week. Just fought as hard as we could all day.”
Also fighting hard was Stewart’s teammate, Ryan Newman. The driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Veterans Day Chevrolet Impala for SHR rallied from his 30th-place starting spot to finish fifth. It was Newman’s ninth top-five result of 2011 and his seventh top-five in 19 career Sprint Cup starts at Phoenix.
The last time both SHR drivers finished in the top-five was in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon when Newman won and Stewart finished second.
Kahne won the Kobalt Tools 500k to score his 12th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his first at Phoenix.
Edwards finished .802 of a second behind Kahne in the runner-up spot, while Stewart, Burton and Newman rounded out the top-five. A.J. Allmendinger, David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose, Menard and Clint Bowyer comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were eight caution periods for 30 laps, with 10 drivers failing to finish the 312-lap race.
Stewart and Newman are both in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup and came into Phoenix second and 12th, respectively, in the Chase standings. Stewart was three points behind Chase leader Edwards while Newman was 103 points out of the top spot. Stewart leaves Phoenix still in second and still three points behind Edwards. Newman moved up three spots to ninth in the standings and is now 107 points out of first. Both Newman and Kurt Busch have 2,252 points, but because Busch has two wins this season compared to just one for Newman, Busch is awarded eighth place.