Stewart looks for win at Las Vegas this year

Stewart-Haas Racing press release

TONY STEWART
Butterfly Effect

Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (March 7, 2012) – Tony Stewart’s run to the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship has been described as epic, improbable and historic.

Chaotic is one word that hasn’t been applied to his title charge, but perhaps it should, as a portion of the Chaos Theory known as the Butterfly Effect can explain the beginnings of Stewart’s title charge.

The Butterfly Effect describes how initial conditions can affect large, complex systems. The term comes from the suggestion that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in South America could affect the weather in Texas, meaning that the tiniest influence on one part of a system can have a huge effect on another part.

In Stewart’s case, an innocent pit road gaffe during the Kobalt Tools 400 last March at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the proverbial butterfly’s wings that made a huge impact eight months later at the Sprint Cup season finale in Homestead, Fla.

Stewart owned last year’s Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing charged from his 15th-place starting spot to take the lead on lap 13 of the 267-lap race. He proceeded to lead four times for a race-high 163 laps, and at one point, opened up a four-second advantage over his nearest pursuer.

But as Stewart began to pull out of his pit stall after a routine pit stop on lap 151 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. The air hose was pulled 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 miscue 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.

Stewart wound up finishing second, and the winner was Carl Edwards.

The victory turned out to be Edwards’ lone win of the 2011 season, yet his consistency gave him the point lead for much of the year, including through the final eight races of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Edwards’ victory, coupled with Stewart’s second-place finish, represented a six-point swing. Edwards scored a point for leading a lap, three points for winning the race, and by finishing one spot ahead of Stewart, nabbed one more point than Stewart. Stewart earned a point for leading a lap and another point for leading the most laps.

This result in March led to the closest championship battle in NASCAR history come November, when Stewart and Edwards ended the season tied atop the championship point standings, as each driver finished the year with 2,403 points.

Stewart, however, made an epic run in the Chase, winning five of the 10 races, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And at Homestead, Stewart did everything he was on track to do at Las Vegas – lead the most laps and win the race.

The Homestead victory, where Stewart finished 1.306 seconds ahead of Edwards, gave Stewart the championship. It allowed him to tie Edwards’ point tally to where the championship was decided on a tiebreaker – wins. Stewart’s five victories trumped Edwards’ one, and the 40-year-old Stewart was a champion for the third time in his 13-year Sprint Cup career.

It was an unbelievable and improbable run that shot new life into NASCAR, and its roots can be traced to Las Vegas. If Stewart won last year’s Kobalt Tools 400, the 2011 season finale at Homestead still would’ve been entertaining, but nowhere near as riveting.

The Butterfly Effect was in full effect, and now in 2012, Stewart returns to the scene where the butterfly’s wings first flapped. He’ll look to get the win that was nearly his in last year’s Kobalt Tools 400 when Round 3 of the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule gets underway Sunday at Las Vegas.

Of all the venues that host both the Sprint Cup Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Las Vegas is one of just two racetracks where Stewart has yet to record a victory, the other being Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. (Stewart has a Nationwide Series win at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, but no Sprint Cup win.)

It’s certainly not for a lack of effort, as the three-time Sprint Cup champion has recorded three top-three, five top-five and eight top-10 finishes while leading a total of 355 laps in his 13 career Sprint Cup starts at Las Vegas. He also has four Nationwide Series starts at Las Vegas and finished third in 2007 driving for Kevin Harvick Inc. However, it was in the 2008 Nationwide Series race where Stewart appeared poised to cross Las Vegas off his “to-do” list.

Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), Stewart led twice for 61 laps, and after his then JGR teammate Kyle Busch crashed out when a flat tire sent him into the wall, there was no other driver even close to matching the pace set by Stewart. But an accident with a lapped car on lap 137 of the 202-lap race sent Stewart hard into the SAFER Barrier along the outside retaining wall in turn three, ending his shot at visiting Las Vegas’ victory lane.

Even though a win hasn’t been earned at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Stewart has, in fact, won races on the track’s grounds. The first one came in November 2002 at the Las Vegas Bullring, located just behind turns one and two of the 1.5-mile oval, where Stewart swept the USAC Sprint/Midget doubleheader. The second came in November 2010 when Stewart won the preliminary round of the inaugural Las Vegas Sprint Car Nationals at the Dirt Track. It was Stewart’s first American Sprint Car Series (ASCS) victory in only his second ASCS start.

Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 is the site of unfinished business for Stewart and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team. They want the victory that slipped through their collective grasp last year. Checking the currently vacant box that reads “Las Vegas” on his win list is definitely on the mind of Stewart, and the Butterfly Effect that made for the closest championship battle in NASCAR history can take a backseat to that long-sought victory.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:

You had the dominant car last year at Las Vegas, as you led four times for a race-high 163 laps and at one point had a four-second advantage until a pit road miscue derailed the perfect outing and left you with a second-place finish. While you left Las Vegas tied for first in the championship point standings, how hard was that finish to accept?

“That’s a race we should’ve won. Winning in Sprint Cup is hard enough as it is, and when you have a race like that and you’re not able to close the deal, especially at a track where you haven’t won yet, that’s hard. I wasn’t really in any mood to appreciate it right after the race, or even when I was in the media center talking about it. But on the flight home, and then Tuesday at the shop when I saw all the guys and we had our competition meeting, the anger went away. To be mad about a second-place finish – that’s a good problem to have.”

The battle between you and Edwards for the championship was pretty impressive.

“It was the perfect storm, so to speak, going into the last race. That’s what you want. It was about as exciting as it gets – to have two guys who are down to three points with one race to go. We both had to fight and fight and fight to get every point we could get. I think it makes it more gratifying, the results, at the end of the day. We had to work for it. We didn’t have it handed to us. That’s all you can ask for as a driver, is to be in that position. It was an awesome championship battle. I don’t know how you could ask for more than what we got.”

Did you look back at last year’s Las Vegas race and see how it shaped the championship?

“For us to battle through all the variables that were thrown at us – not just as Vegas but throughout the year – makes our championship even more remarkable. It definitely makes you go, ‘How did we do this? How did we overcome all these variables to get to where we are?’ At the same time, it made the championship very gratifying because we were able to take a less-than-perfect scenario and have success with it. We’re very proud of that.”

What is the key to being successful at Las Vegas?

“Well, I haven’t won anything there yet, except for a USAC race at the Bullring and a Sprint Car race at the Dirt Track. But you know, there’s really no key to it. It’s just like anywhere else you go. You just have to have a well-balanced car. It seems like track position is really, really key there, but as long as you can get your car driving well and stay ahead of it, it seems like as the day changes, or the longer the day goes, the more the track changes and the more you have to stay up with it. You just can’t have any mistakes there because you cannot afford to lose the track position, and you have to be able to stay up with the changing track conditions as the day goes on.”

What is your outlook for this weekend’s race at Las Vegas?

“It’s no different at Las Vegas than anywhere else. You have to get the car to rotate through the corner, but still stay tight enough on entry and exit. There’s no unique challenges there. The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps. Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”

Your World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series teams race Thursday night at The Dirt Track. It’s not often when the schedules of your open-wheel teams coincide with your Sprint Cup schedule. Are you looking forward to a busy week as an owner and a driver?

“Oh, yeah. It’s really a cool weekend because we get to watch my open-wheel teams run, and then I get to play the rest of the weekend. So I’m excited about that. That’s what makes going to Las Vegas so much fun is that we do get to see our other programs running.”

You’ve been a team owner in Sprint Cup for a little over three years now. How has life changed, if it’s changed at all?

“It hasn’t changed from the driving side. I think I’ve been on the ownership side long enough not only with the Cup stuff, but with my open-wheel teams, that it’s just business as usual. When you get in the car, you’re just thinking about being a driver. You’re not thinking about making payroll at the end of the week or all the other things that you worry about when you’re outside the car. When you’re in the car, if you’re thinking about anything other than driving the car, then you probably shouldn’t be in there to begin with. For me, that’s something that’s been really easy to separate.”

Which was the bigger transition – Sprint Car driver to NASCAR driver or Sprint Car team owner to NASCAR team owner?

“Definitely Sprint Cup team owner to NASCAR team owner. When you’re a driver, it’s you in a car. That’s all you’re trying to figure out. When you’re a team owner, that’s a different deal, but so is owning an Outlaws team compared to a NASCAR team. With the World of Outlaws team, you only have three guys working on the car versus the 160 guys that we have with two Sprint Cup teams at Stewart-Haas. Managing people and the resources that go with that is the biggest difference.”

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Carl Edwards , Kyle Busch
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing
Tags chevrolet, stewart, stewart-haas