For as long as he’s raced in NASCAR, the book on Tony Stewart is “starts slow.” He admits it. “…The history shows in the last 13 years we have not had the strongest starts the first third of the year,” says the three-time and defending champion. About the time the temperatures heat up, so does Stewart.
It’s a new day in NASCAR. With two wins in the first five races of 2012, Smoke is leaving the field in a fog, picking up where he left off, after collecting wins like Kim Kardashian collects broken hearts. The champ is quick to give credit to his team. “We’ve been strong everywhere we’ve been. I mean, Daytona was probably our weakest race, and I know I made decisions trying to make things happen, and didn’t work out, but it wasn’t because our cars weren’t good. We’ve had top 10 cars and top 5 cars every race this year after that. So really, really proud of what (crew chief) Steve (Addington) and all of our guys at Stewart-Haas Racing have done.”
He also credits the man with the money, Gene Haas. “Gene has always given us the flexibility and the tools to do what we think needs to be done at our shop. It’s been a hard economic time, obviously, the last three or four years. Not once have we asked for anything and Gene said no.”
In post-race press conference, there was also mention of the Hendrick horsepower, and generous praise for Steve Addington. Say what you will about tracks like Fontana and Las Vegas, but the two offer an early glimpse of who has it going on at the intermediates, and not only is Stewart a stallion, teammate Ryan Newman has has Stewart in his sights with fourth and seventh place finishes at the two tracks, lending further credence to the owner/driver’s observations.
Those all-important victories will serve Stewart well, because coming up is a stretch of schedule that will put him to the test. He’s a three-time winner at Martinsville, but that closed quarter racing on the paper clip has its way being unkind to even the best of them. After that comes a break for Easter that can have the potential for breaking up good momentum, before heading off to Texas and Kansas.
You can’t win a Cup in March, but you can sure lose one (not good news for Jeff Gordon fans). In Tony’s case, with his history, let’s just say he’s earned some wiggle room that will likely come in handy down the road, as every team his a bump sooner or later for a stretch.
In Stewart’s case, who really knows? If he’s this good this early, its going to take a monster season by the likes of Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to stay in the hunt with him. The “Drive for Five? The “Stretch for Six?” At the moment, the “Fight for Four” is on, with the champ delivering blows right from the opening bell.
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Jim McCoy is a TV & radio sports reporter and radio play-by-play announcer living in southern Oregon. Favorite quote? "Racing is a sport, the others are just games."