Tony Stewart bounced back after an ECU problem spoiled his day at Phoenix last week to take his first ever victory at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The reigning Sprint Cup series champion had looked strong all race long, leading the most laps (127) and repeatedly laying waste to the field on restarts, eventually fending off the challenge of Jimmie Johnson to take his first win with new crew chief Steve Addington, after watching his former crew chief Darian Grubb win with Denny Hamlin last week.
“You sit there and go, ‘how many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart?’” Stewart said. “It’s very nerve-racking. That was the great thing about our race car: I think we were hands-down the strongest car on restarts of getting to Turn 1 from the restart point.”
Stewart's day looked to be done early on when he dropped back with debris stuck to the grille interrupting the air intake. Once gone however, 'Smoke' was able to recover the positions he had lost, retaking the lead from Johnson on lap 134. Stewart's dominance was such that even when Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski in the blue deuce attempted to roll the dice on strategy and stay out in the final laps, Stewart simply blew right past both of them with an impeccably timed move via the apron. His car was just that good.
“We almost got too good a restart because I got such a good run on Brad,” Stewart said of the decisive move. “Knowing we can’t pull out of line till we cross the start/finish line, I almost got to him too quick. If we would have got there a foot earlier, I was going to have to check up and we probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to get underneath him like that.”
Stewart was hugely relieved to finally win in Vegas, having effectively handed the race to Carl Edwards last year with a pit-road violation penalty. He now only needs wins at the Darlington Southern 500, and at the new Kentucky event to complete the set.
“Man, I’m just finally glad to win one here,” said Stewart. “We were so close last year and had a dominant car.
“We only get one shot at Vegas a year, and we let this one get away from us last year when we had a dominant car which should have won this thing. I'm not sure we had as dominant a car here as we had last year, but we had a car that was just bad to the bone on restarts, that was definitely our strong suit.”
Behind 4-time Vegas winner Johnson, who raced from the back after hitting the wall in practice and being forced to change to his back-up car, was Greg Biffle, whose third successive top three finish sees him take the championship lead for the first time since 2005, with Stewart's team-mate Ryan Newman fourth and Edwards fifth. It could have been even better for Roush-Fenway Racing, with the Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth running strongly up front until making contact with the wall on a late restart and plummeting to 22nd at the flag.
“Carl just laid back and got by me three-wide and then it just didn’t seem like there was a lot of room getting into [Turn] 1,” said Kenseth. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”
Bowyer was able to save enough fuel to make it home sixth without another fuel stop, ahead of Paul Menard (Richard Childress Racing), Jamie McMurray (Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing) and Trevor Bayne next up. Bayne, driving the Wood Brothers no.21 with which he won last year's Daytona 500 came on strong in the latter stages, having been a lap behind early on, and confessed that this, his first top-10 since Daytona 2011 “feels like a win to us”. Despite sitting fourth in Nationwide Series points, Bayne is still searching for funds to go to Bristol next week.
It was also a positive day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. who rounded out the top-10 and led more laps (70) than he did in the whole of last year (52). Junior took the lead from his pole-sitting Hendrick Motorsport team-mate Kasey Kahne from the start, and only surrendered it when he made a pit-stop under green on lap 45. Luckily for the no.88, he had already crossed the start-finish line by the time rookie Timmy Hill hit the wall to bring out the caution in his Rick Ware Racing Ford, allowing Earnhardt to stay on the lead-lap and go back to the head of the field when the rest came in under caution. Despite a late collision with NASCAR iron-man Mark Martin which sent the no.55 MWR Toyota into the wall, Junior was able to secure fourth in points with another consistent finish, although he was disappointed not to have finished higher.
“We didn’t keep up with the race track,” said Earnhardt. “The car was really fast at the start of the race. I didn’t give that information to [crew chief] Steve [Letarte]. I don’t think I gave him a good enough understanding of where our race car was, even though it was really fast. The track got really tight on us at the end of the race – something that I should have had a handle on and should have known better and should have not let happen.
“We just didn’t have our adjustments going throughout the day to keep up with the track as it tightened up on us. The [car] was really good all weekend. We had good speed. Hopefully, we can keep bringing cars like that to the race track, and we’ll get some opportunities to win.”
It was a disastrous weekend for the homecoming Busch brothers. Kurt Busch was not as lucky as Earnhardt under that early caution, and would later crash out with a cut tyre, while a similar fate also befell Kyle Busch, who made early contact with the wall when the engine in Travis Kvapil's BK Racing Toyota exploded and laid oil down, and later spun through the infield on lap 259, finishing a lap down in 23rd.
After last week's well-documented reliability issues for Stewart, Keselowski was ruled be out of contention with a fuel pickup issue which also manifested itself on the sister Penske Racing Dodge of AJ Allmendinger, whose rotten start to the year continued with a lowly 37th place finish.
“We had a pretty decent Dodge Charger all day, probably not as good as Tony’s but really strong,” Keselowski said. “We were going to give him a run for his money and I was going to drive my butt off. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
“Man, this is not the start to the season any of us were expecting,” Allmendinger added. “I’m struggling to figure out what to say because I’m feeling so many things right now.”
“Just when I knew we could make something solid, we started having fuel pressure issues. It was sporadic. Then it just went away. We came into the garage and changed some things and went back out, but the same thing happened. My guys busted their butts changing everything related to fuel pressure we could and went back out to salvage what was left.”