When Tony Stewart is in a good mood, better watch out. And he was in a great mood all weekend, from Friday morning right up till Sunday evening in victory lane. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Now November is a long, long way from here, but judging from Sunday's 400 on this rocking-fast 1-1/2-mile track, those five seem to have a little extra over their rivals.
Stewart avenged last year's mistake here, once again dominating Sunday's Las Vegas Kobalt 400 but this time pulling out the victory.
Johnson made a late desperate charge on the final restart with four laps to go in the 3-1/2-hour race, but he couldn't catch Stewart, who was lightning fast on restarts throughout the warm, sunny afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
That made it a one-two finish for Rick Hendrick-powered drivers.
Steve Addington's crew whips Tony Stewart through a pit stop in Sunday's Las Vegas 400, in front of crowd NASCAR estimated at 150,000. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jack Roush's threesome – Biffle, Kenseth and Edwards – was right behind the two, but the three Ford men got to battling among themselves as Stewart and Johnson took flight.
The win was Stewart's first here, leaving him winless at only Darlington and Kentucky.
And the win was Stewart's first with new crew chief Steve Addington.
Stewart, as he was last year, was untouchable. So most of the race the field was well spread out.
But in the final 30 miles things tightened up. And late cautions gave Johnson several shots at catching Stewart on the restarts.
However Stewart was stunning on restarts….so much so that rivals are insisting on looking at the data charts from his engine computer.
"Jimmie is a class act," Stewart said. "He came down to victory lane afterwards to shake my hand. He's either the first one to send you a text message 'Congrats,' or he comes down to victory lane and tells you 'Good job.'
"That's pretty cool. He was giving me a lot of praise for my restarts...."
Well, up to a point.
"After what all we've been through this weekend, we'll take second….but, man, I want to win," Johnson said, somewhat exasperated. He came into the race already 69 points behind the leader, and he leaves this place still 64 down.
Tony Stewart on the inside, Jimmie Johnson on the outside, and those pesky Jack Roush Fords nipping at their heels (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Those restarts? Johnson was side-by-side with Stewart.
"The second restart I just blew it," Johnson said of the end-game. "But the first restart I thought was pretty good….and Tony still pulled away."
"Hands down we were faster than anyone from the start line down into turn one," Stewart said.
"But with all those late restarts you have to worry...."
Stewart complained that Johnson was laying back on the restarts, a charge that Stewart frequently makes.
Johnson curtly dismissed that complaint: "I don't know about laying back, it's his prerogative to go whatever he wants.
"But it would be foolish for me to be tire-to-tire with him (for the green).
"Nothing out of the ordinary there."
In fact Johnson raised his own questions, about Stewart's engine setup (though both come out of the Hendrick shop).
Johnson said the new electronic fuel injection systems being used this season for the first time on the Sprint Cup tour have made a difference in how well drivers can restart. And Johnson says he'll be taking a very close look at the computer data from Stewart's car this week, to see just that Stewart was able to do.
"Yep, and I've already asked for it," Johnson said with a laugh.
"It's got to be a two-way street; he's been looking at our stuff for years."
But it may take a bit of wrestling to get that data, Stewart says, with a curt "No."
Ironically at Phoenix Stewart had major problems with his engine EFI, his engine stalling late in the race.
And now everyone wants to see what he's doing.
"I can promised you our Hendrick teammates will get the information," Stewart says.
But NASCAR is mulling over possibly releasing the engine computer data of the top five finishers this season, as teams struggle with the new EFI systems.
Stewart says NASCAR shouldn't be releasing that data: "NASCAR has its guidelines about the (engine) parameters we're supposed to stay in, and as long as we stay in those, I don't know that we should be giving all the information away.
"There's still the part of the creativity and guys doing their homework. And the Hendrick guys have done a great job. Those guys should be very proud of what they've done; they worked very hard this year to get this thing ready. And I don't think it's fair just to give away all that information. I don't think it's right to do that."
Greg Biffle, the new Sprint Cup tour points leader, getting hot service from Matt Puccia's crew (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Greg Biffle, with his third straight third-place finish this season, goes this week to Bristol, Tenn., as the tour points leader.
And he, like Johnson, was more than impressed with Stewart's speed.
"It's clear Tony and Jimmie had better cars than we did, and Matt had a little better car too," Biffle said.
Stewart, Biffle said, not only had a faster car than anyone here, Stewart also had a much faster car on the restarts. And Biffle said if NASCAR goes ahead with its tentative plans to release the technical computer 'mapping' data from the EFI systems from the top five finishers, he would be eagerly examining Stewart's data.
"I don't think NASCAR has decided if it's going to release the 'map' yet on the top five," Biffle said. "But we would certainly look at it.
"It was clear Tony had more power than we did. And it appeared he had more power than Jimmie; Tony could pretty much drive away from him.
"It's been a long time since I've seen a car that fast.
"But we were a little tight in the middle of the corner and I couldn't use the throttle as much as I wanted to. I was off the gas way longer than Tony was.
"Still, on the restarts, man, I've never seen a car drive off like that. They've got something going on with their cars, that's carried over from last year clearly."
The speed this weekend was remarkable, even Stewart conceded: "The pace never slowed down. And it was very, very fast."
And what in the world were the three Roush guys doing on that late restart, fighting so hard among themselves?
Edwards made the first move, trailing his two teammates but quickly making it three-wide into the corner, when he said Kenseth spun his tires at the green.
Kenseth didn't seem very pleased with Edwards' move and appeared to bump him lightly. That, though, sent Kenseth up into the outside wall, which he brushed, then continuing.