Event: Las Vegas
Cruel Hand Dealt to Stewart at Las Vegas
Mobil 1/Office Depot Drivers Leads Four Times for Race-High 163 Laps, Yet Finishes Second
Las Vegas Motor Speedway had been one of two tracks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits where Tony Stewart had yet to win, and despite leading four times for a race-high 163 laps in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas, it remains one of two tracks where Stewart has yet to win.
Despite having a dominant car, Stewart finished second to race-winner Carl Edwards.
Stewart’s No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala was the class of the field. He started 15th and rose to second when he and crew chief Darian Grubb elected to stay out during the day’s first caution period on lap nine. And when the restart came on lap 13, Stewart wasted no time in passing four-time series champion Jeff Gordon for the lead.
Stewart paced the field for the next 38 laps and gave up the lead only as green-flag pit stops cycled through. He reassumed his place out front on lap 61 and led another 37 laps before pitting under caution. He was again in first by lap 99 and led another 52-lap chunk before having to pit again. It was there, however, when one little miscue spoiled Stewart’s sterling run.
The pit stop was quick, and because the Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy was so fast, no changes were necessary. But as Stewart pulled out of his pit stall to reassert his Superman-like grasp on the race, something tugged on his cape. It was the rear tire changer’s air hose, which caught the left-rear corner of Stewart’s car, pulling the air hose out of the pits and into the stall ahead of the No. 14 team before it snapped loose and crew members were quickly able to pull it back into their reach.
The gaffe did not go unnoticed by NASCAR, and Stewart was promptly penalized for illegally removing equipment from his pit stall. The infraction meant that Stewart would have to come down pit road at the mandated 45 mph speed limit. He was able to stop in his pits and get his car topped off with fuel, but the loss of track position was enormous. Instead of being the leader, he was mired in 24th.
Now back in the “dirty air” of the wake caused by the cars in front of him, Stewart’s forward progress was stymied. He made it up to 16th when the caution flag waved on lap 196.
Seeing how important track position was, Grubb made the savvy call for two tires. Everyone else on pit road took four tires, and Stewart beat them all out and regained the lead.
When the green flag dropped for the final time, Stewart set sail just as he had earlier in the 267-lap race. Others took notice, most notably Grubb’s crew chief counterparts.
Everyone had to make one final pit stop. For Stewart, it would have to be for four tires, as his right-side tires would be too worn to make it through the final laps. Everyone else, however, could emulate Grubb’s call and take only two tires. The strategy that put Stewart back in the lead would now be used against him.
Knowing this, Stewart put the hammer down and opened up a four-and-a-half second advantage before making his final pit stop under green on lap 236. With four fresh Goodyears, Stewart took off, hoping that time would not run out on him as he made up the lost ground.
Sure enough, everyone was taking two tires. Yet Stewart was so fast that he was in third after all the pit stops had cycled through. The bad news was that Edwards had opened up a monster lead, and Juan Pablo Montoya, who was running second, was also well ahead of Stewart.
Undeterred, Stewart ran down Montoya for second on lap 263 and then set his sights on Edwards. But time was on Edwards’ side, for when the checkered flag dropped, Stewart was still a half-straightaway behind him.
“We just gave one away today,” said a disgusted Stewart. “This Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy was the baddest thing on the west coast today.
“I don’t know what happened on the pit stop there, but we had a miscue and had a penalty and had to go to the back, and unfortunately it kind of dealt our cards for us. Darian made a good call getting us the track position back, but it also showed everybody else that they could do it too, and we couldn’t make two-and-a-half runs on a set of left-side tires.”
That Stewart now shares the point lead with Kurt Busch was of little solace for the two-time Sprint Cup champion.
“I probably should feel good about that, but that’s not in my makeup,” Stewart said. “I mean, it kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven’t won at yet. This was a big deal today, and when you lead that many laps and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it… I’m sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we’ll look back and say it was a great weekend, but man, it does not sit good right now.”
The result was Stewart’s first top-five finish of 2011 and his fifth top-five result in 13 career Sprint Cup starts at Las Vegas. He also finished in the runner-up spot at Las Vegas in 2000.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), finished fifth. It was his second top-five finish in 11 career Sprint Cup starts at Las Vegas and his second top-five result of 2011.
The last time both SHR drivers finished in the top-five came last October at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Stewart won and Newman finished fifth.
By winning the Kobalt Tools 400, Edwards scored his 19th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his second at Las Vegas. His previous victory at the 1.5-mile oval was in 2008.
Following Edwards, Stewart and Montoya across the stripe in fourth was Marcos Ambrose. Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were seven caution periods for 35 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish.
With round three of 36 complete, Stewart is tied with Busch for first in the Sprint Cup championship point standings. Each driver has 113 points and is seven markers ahead of Edwards and Montoya, who are tied for third. Newman moved up to fifth in the standings. He has 103 points and is 10 out of the lead.
The Sprint Cup Series takes a rare weekend off before heading to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway for the March 20 Jeff Byrd 500. The race begins at 1 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its pre-race show at 12:30 p.m.