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'Smoke' Puts Heat On Cup Competitors With Strong Start

With seven wins in his last 16 races – including five wins in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup last season – it’s fair to say that Tony Stewart is hot. Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion from Columbus, Ind., is nicknamed “Smoke” and has certainly proven to be on fire by backing up his spectacular finish to the 2011 season with an equally impressive start to the 2012 campaign.

Through six races this season, Stewart has two wins, including victories at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and California Speedway in March. Normally a slow starter, Stewart already has recorded victories at the earliest points of the season in his career and is third in the standings, just 12 points behind Cup leader Greg Biffle and six behind second place Dale Earnhardt Jr. heading into the Easter break.

Next week, two-time Brickyard 400 champion Stewart and his Cup competitors head to Texas Motor Speedway for a Saturday night race at the 1.5-mile oval followed by a trip to Kansas Speedway and then off to Richmond International Raceway to close out April.

Those are three of Stewart’s best tracks with two wins, five top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 20 starts at Texas; two wins, five top-five and eight top-10s at Kansas and three wins, nine top-five and 17 top 10s at Richmond.

Stewart will be one of the headline drivers that returns back home to Indiana in July for the Crown Royal Presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” 400 at the Brickyard as he attempts to add a third win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to his three Cup championships.

For now, Stewart continues to ride his wave of momentum.

 “This is definitely the biggest one so far,” Stewart said of his streak that began with a victory at Chicagoland Speedway to start the Chase last September. “Especially to go through an offseason and pick it back up and to have some pretty big personnel changes in the middle of all that so, it’s pretty big right now. You know the hard part is that you just don’t want it to end; you want it to stay like this.

“I don’t know that it is the best I have run in my career, but it is pretty close. I mean, when we were running the year we won the USAC Triple Crown in ’95, I feel like that is the best that I had ever run in my career, and I don’t feel like we are far off that right now.”

As a driver, Stewart is among the greatest of his era to ever climb behind the wheel of a stock car. He already has 46 career Cup victories and is ready to establish himself as one of the best of all time.

“I just feel like I have been racing a lot and I feel like that has helped, so I think our group here has done a great job, and I just feel like I am always in that race mode,” he said last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. “I mean, I am always running something, but it makes it good when you come on a weekend and the cars are driving good, and that’s been that way since Chicago of last year all the way through now.”

Stewart was racing his way into position to challenge for the win at Martinsville on April 1 before the setup on his Chevrolet was off for the final portion of the race. He would finish seventh.

“Unfortunately, we had our worse run of the day the last run of the day,” Stewart said. “We got behind there and got a lap down, but clawed back to get the lucky dog and rallied back to seventh.”

But Stewart still celebrated in victory lane at Martinsville because as a team owner his other full-time driver won the race in dramatic fashion as Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., was involved in some late-race beatin’ and bangin’ and was able to hold off A.J. Allmendinger and Earnhardt to win a race that went 15 laps over its scheduled 500-lap distance.

“I’m ecstatic for Ryan,” Stewart said. “I got to see it on the replay during the caution after all the havoc broke loose. Ryan made an awesome move to the bottom. He was heads up enough to get in the gas and get through that hole before it closed up. He definitely earned this one, for sure.”

Newman – known for his dry wit – was asked about his role in giving Stewart-Haas Racing eight wins in the last 16 races, although it’s Stewart that has driven to victory in seven of those wins.

“I’m just glad I finally contributed,” Newman said.

During the Chase, Stewart displayed his incredible ability to drive from the rear to the front, not once but twice to win the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and claim the Cup crown over Carl Edwards based on the tie-breaker of most victories.

But this March 25 at Fontana, Calif., Stewart got a little luck when he was the leader of a race that was stopped well short of its scheduled 200 laps because of rain.

In the NASCAR record books, however, a win is a win. When Stewart was awarded the victory after 129 laps, it still counts as if it ran the full distance.

“You hate to have them end with rain like that, but I've lost some that way,” said Stewart, who stayed on the track when he faked his way as if he was going to pit road and the cars behind him went for the bait. “The good thing is we didn't back into the lead because we stayed out, the leaders came in.  I mean, we were leading the thing and had earned that spot.  I’m proud of that. Even if we went back to green, I still feel like we had a little ways to go to get it perfect, but I was confident Steve (Addington, crew chief) was going in the right direction, no doubt. I felt like we still had more we could gain on it, would gain on it as the day went. Either way, whether it rained or didn't rain, I felt confident we had a car that was capable of for sure running in the top three and definitely had a great shot at winning.”

When Stewart won the Cup title last year, it was a bittersweet moment for the man calling the shots at the top of his pit box because Darian Grubb had been informed five races earlier than he would not be back at SHR in 2012. Grubb has since moved over to Denny Hamlin’s car at Joe Gibbs Racing and was replaced by Steve Addington, whose trial by fire is being the crew chief for both of the tempestuous Busch Brothers in NASCAR – Kyle and Kurt.

Stewart has been known to display a hot temper, too. But so far the combination of working with Addington has paid off with two wins in six races.

“The group of people they have in place there at Stewart Haas Racing is just unbelievable,” Addington said. “It's just racers, guys that want to work.  There's a lot of smart people that give you support.  You can ask a question, and somebody will have you an answer really fast. Getting in there, getting to know personalities, things like that, you learn how to work and deal with each person.

“It doesn't surprise me.  I think what they've put in place here with bringing Zippy (Greg Zipadelli) in to work with Tony and myself at the racetrack like that, he sits down with us, even with Tony and Ryan in a debrief, he asks the questions and opens your mind up to different things.  That's really cool that he can sit back and watch the big picture, what's going on in practice and things, then ask you questions.  You go back and look at different areas of the car and your setups and your notes and stuff.  That's brought a lot to the table.  I think that's helped us a ton, too, both teams.”

Usually, Stewart doesn’t hit his race-winning form until the hot summer months of the season. But with an unusually warm winter and spring throughout the United States, perhaps that explains why the Hoosier has been so hot this early in the season.

“It's been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have,” Stewart said. “History shows in the last 13 years we have not had the strongest starts the first third of the year.  I'm really, really excited about the start that we've got going. We've been strong everywhere we've been.  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.”

While a fourth Sprint Cup title remains a goal for Stewart and his team, he also will have his sights focused on a third win at the Brickyard in July. As well as he is running on all tracks so far this season, Stewart is proving that where there is “Smoke, there is Fire.”
 

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