Stewart Scores Strong Seventh at Talladega
El Monterey/Office Depot Driver Leads Five Times for Race-High 30 Laps
Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway was dubbed the wild-card track in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup for its ability to wreak havoc among the 12 drivers competing for this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Tony Stewart dodged the calamity Talladega offers up – tandem racing where a driver has to rely on another driver to push him around the vast 2.66-mile oval at speeds approaching 200 mph – to finish seventh and move up to fourth in the championship standings.
Stewart’s No. 14 El Monterey/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) was strong throughout the 188-lap contest, as he led five times for a race-high 30 laps en route to his 16th top-10 result of 2011 and his 13th top-10 in 26 career Sprint Cup starts at Talladega.
But the run to the front didn’t come without some hairy moments, the most notable of which involved his teammate, Ryan Newman.
Newman and Stewart showed their strength early, with Stewart pushing Newman to the lead four times for five laps. But the tandem racing that allowed them to move to the front bit them on lap 81. While racing through the tri-oval, Newman and Stewart came upon David Reutimann, and as the pair passed him low, aerodynamics and a bump-draft from Stewart sent Newman sideways.
The momentary loss of downforce caused when Newman slipped past Reutimann, combined with the nose of Stewart’s car tapping the rear bumper of Newman’s No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet, sent Newman spinning onto the infield grass, whereupon the splitter was ripped from beneath the front bumper. It was damage Newman was never able to overcome, and he wound up 16 laps down in 38th.
Making matters worse was that Stewart was left without a drafting partner. The banged-up car of Joey Logano, who lost his left-front fender when a cut tire earlier in the race tore apart the sheetmetal, was Stewart’s only hope. Amazingly, with Logano pushing Stewart, the duo drove through the field, ultimately running 1-2 from laps 136-145 and again from laps 149-156.
As successful as the pairing was, it was broken up with less than 25 laps remaining. Logano, employed by Joe Gibbs Racing, was instructed to assist his teammate, Denny Hamlin.
Exit Logano, enter Paul Menard. The winner of this year’s Brickyard 400 attached himself to Stewart’s rear bumper beginning with a restart on lap 168. The duo proved just as strong as the Logano pairing, with Menard pushing Stewart back into the lead for laps 169-178.
But with Menard’s Richard Childress Racing (RCR) teammates, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton, posing as Stewart’s biggest challengers for the win, Menard got his instructions to not push Stewart past his RCR brethren. And in the race’s final restart on lap 187, Bowyer and Burton shot forward while Stewart and Menard dropped back, as Stewart’s pusher was suddenly not as strong as he’d been just a few laps earlier.
When the checkered flag dropped, Bowyer had his fifth career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his second at Talladega, with Burton .018 of a second behind him in the runner-up spot. Stewart was seventh.
“I screwed up and got out of sync with Ryan (Newman) and crashed him, and after that you just had to pick up whoever you could pick up,” said Stewart, who has one Sprint Cup victory at Talladega, earned in October 2008. “We had a good run with Joey (Logano) there for a long time and were lucky enough to pick Paul Menard up. I had good partners to push with. Paul and Joey both did a great job and Ryan did a great job. I let Ryan down today.”
Dave Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Brian Vickers rounded out the top-five. Kasey Kahne, Stewart, Hamlin, Michael Waltrip and Martin Truex Jr., comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were nine caution periods for 38 laps, with nine drivers failing to finish.
Stewart and Newman are both in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup and came into Talladega fifth and 10th, respectively, in the Chase standings. Stewart was 24 points behind Chase leader Carl Edwards while Newman was 61 points out of the top spot. Stewart leaves Talladega fourth in points, 19 markers behind Edwards. Newman fell two spots to 12th in the standings and is now 88 points out of first.