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'Smoke' Catching Fire Just At Right Time Heading Into Brickyard

Tony Stewart’s nickname of “Smoke” is one of the best monikers in all of sports. But after winning the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night, July 7 at Daytona International Speedway, where there is “Smoke,” there is “Fire” heading to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the end of July.

Stewart’s third NASCAR Sprint Cup victory of the season ties him with Brad Keselowski for most wins so far in 2012. It also was his fourth Cup win at Daytona but the 18th overall victory at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, which is second all time behind the late Dale Earnhardt. In Stewart’s NASCAR career, it was win No. 47, which is 14th all-time as he passed NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker.

Those numbers could add up to something even bigger for Indiana native Stewart and for his huge legion of fans that will come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Crown Royal Presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” 400 at the Brickyard powered by Sunday, July 29.

Stewart is a two-time Brickyard winner and a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Consider that Stewart didn’t get his third win of the 2011 season until the second race in the Chase last September at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, so he already is ahead of the pace that helped him claim his third Cup championship last year.

Because each Cup race victory before the Chase is worth five bonus points, it could allow Stewart to begin this year’s Chase in the same position he ended last year – No. 1.

He hopes to accomplish something similar in July by winning the first race of the month at Daytona and closing the month with a win at “The Greatest Race Course in the World” – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Stewart was able to keep his cool on the final lap of the race last Saturday at Daytona, driving out ahead of the competition while many drivers behind him became tangled in a huge, multi-car crash at the checkered flag.

“We got pretty fortunate to not have any of those close calls when Kurt Busch had that one problem in Turns 1 and 2 -- that was the closest to drama that we had, and it really wasn't that bad,” Stewart said after the victory. “The ones after that seemed to be a lot bigger and caught up a lot more cars. And for the most part, I guess probably the fact that we were looking at going a lap down because we lost touch with that lead draft was probably the biggest drama we had.

“But I’m really proud of Steve Addington (crew chief) and really proud of everybody at StewartHaas Racing and the Hendrick engine and chassis department, really pleased with the first half the season. I think there were some races that we lost some opportunities on, but I think there were races that we capitalized on that we haven't been able to in the past. I think on the average, we're really looking good right now. I’m so proud of the effort with everybody.”

“It's nice to come into this weekend and leaving here tonight, I'm leaving with a big weight lifted off our shoulders. I think qualifying yesterday was what I was most proud of for the weekend, and even though we lost our time, having those two cars come here and be second and third separated by only eight-thousandths of a second it shows how good a job the guys did at our race shop.”

Stewart had to start his No. 14 Chevrolet from the 42nd starting position after his car was penalized in post-qualifying technical inspection. But at a massive restrictor-plate track such as Daytona, a good car/driver/crew chief combination can make it back to the front. That’s what Stewart was able to accomplish.

“We started at the back there and were a little – probably too cautious – I was a little too cautious at the beginning, and we came out of the pits after that first green flag stop, and we lost connection with the lead pack there and got with Brad Keselowski and David Ragan and just tried to minimize the damage there as far as the time we were losing,” Stewart said. “But we got a caution there and got regrouped. I just made sure that when the green came out that time I didn't wait, and we got going on the outside and gained a lot of spots there and got ourselves in the top 10.

“Then Steve had a great call there that actually got us the lead with two tires there, I think three stops or two stops from the end or two cautions from the end, and yeah, that was the key. We were able to hold that track position, got the lead on the restart, and we were pretty good on the bottom. The biggest challenge was the 17 (Matt Kenseth) and 16 (Greg Biffle) car obviously, and when they hooked up, I don't think there was anybody that could beat them. But we were able to stay in touch with them, and I got a great restart with Kasey Kahne helping me on that last restart there. I'm not sure how he got shuffled back there in (Turns) 1 and 2, but we just had to try to separate the 17 and 16 there, and once we got them pulled apart, I think Matt tried to reconnect with Greg, and we carried enough momentum to get back around in front of him and get down on that bottom line. I tried to back up to Matt to make sure they didn't get a huge run on us.

“They were coming on the outside in 3 and 4 and the last wreck happened there, we were just fortunate enough to be leading still.”

Stewart made the unusual decision of releasing the crew chief that helped guide him to the 2011 Cup title last year as Darian Grubb moved to Joe Gibbs Racing to work with Denny Hamlin. Addington left Penske Racing to take over as Stewart’s crew chief, and the two men have formed a strong bond that has paid off with an outstanding season.

“Having started last it was kind of tough,” Addington said. “I think once we got the caution and got back up there, we were losing touch with the lead pack there when Brad and David Ragan and Tony were sitting there running the lap times, I was getting a little worried. But then I was hoping we would get a caution, and we got one and we got up in there. The guys do an awesome job on our pit stops week in and week out. They wrote off a good pit stop, and they ran off about eight laps there, and my engineer was telling us, if we come now, we can do it on one can if it goes green until the end.

“So we decided to come and put right sides on then and then top off the fuel. So that put us in the position for the late-race caution deal, and we came down and got right sides and one can of fuel and we could make it to the end, and that got us the lead.”

While Stewart had four career Cup wins at Daytona all have come in the Coke Zero 400 in July. Stewart has yet to win the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race.

“We've had really good luck at Daytona, obviously, and I wish I could trade a couple of these races in for just one Sunday race in February,” Stewart said of the Daytona 500. “It's just being at the right place at the right time, and when those last two big wrecks happened we were in the right spot. We were ahead of them both times.”

By keeping his cool and staying out of crashes “Smoke” was able to blaze his way to victory. And with just one more race remaining before the NASCAR hits the Brickyard, the Daytona win may provide plenty of momentum for Stewart as he attempts to earn the third Brickyard victory of his career July 29.

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