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Tony Stewart: Still Smokin'!

Tony Smoke hasn't missed a beat, picking up right where he left off at Homestead, ripping the field Sunday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern


   And the quickie early analysis of Sunday's 400-miler at the tour's first, of many, mid-sized tracks:
   Tony Stewart dished out a warning to rivals with Sunday's blitz to victory here – that he's starting out 2012 just as strong as he finished up 2011….which, remember, was a championship season for him.
    Of course now the question is can new crew chief Steve Addington keep it up over the eight months till the late fall chase.

    Darian Grubb was Stewart's crew chief last season, and Stewart's decision to bring in Addington this year to replace Grubb raised a lot of eyebrows, considering Stewart and Grubb won five of the last 10 races last year.
   Does this win, and Grubb's win with his new driver, Denny Hamlin, last week at Phoenix, officially close that chapter?
   Stewart says he hopes so.
   "I never worry about what anybody else says," Stewart says. "I'd like to think that over 32 years of racing I can make some pretty good decisions.
   "It was an awesome scenario last fall to win the championship.
  "We've told Steve from Day One 'We're going to go have fun, and see wherever it leads.'
   "I was glad to see Darian win at Phoenix
   "Hopefully this will calm everyone down, and show that we can all come into different situations and come out strong."
   Addington, Stewart said, "has been pretty nervous" about the role he's stepped into.
   "But he's doing an awesome job," Stewart says.
    "It is hard to come into a team after they've won a championship like that. I don't know many guys other guys like Steve Addington that could step into a role and succeed Darin Grubb and do the job he is doing.
    "We had a great leader with Darian, and I miss him, but I'm proud of our new leader, Steve."


A nice crowd for Sunday's Las Vegas 400, on a brilliantly warm and sunny afternoon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR


    Stewart, who has now won six of the last 13 tour events, needs only to win at Darlington and Kentucky to complete his NASCAR resume of winning tracks.
   Though Stewart led far more laps (127 of the 267) than anyone else, he insisted he was nervous:
   "Every time the caution came out, I'm like 'Not again,'" he said. "You wonder how many times you are going to give them a chance at it on a restart and when are they going to be able to capitalize."
   However restarts were Stewart's strong suit; he was so much quicker on restarts that rivals were asking some pointed questions.
   "The key to our restarts was the power we had," Stewart said. "We could go without spinning the tires, and we could get a really good lead into turn one, and then just haul butt down the backstretch."

    This race, drivers predicted, would be a key in sizing up their own teams this season and sizing up rivals.
   If so…..
    For the first hour it looked like Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be the one making a statement. He jumped to the lead early and stayed strong until midway through the race.
    Earnhardt, who led only four laps of the 3,000-plus on these 1-1/2-mile tracks last year, led 70 of the first 73 laps. That's more laps led in one day than Earnhardt led all last season.
    But he faded to 10th: "We didn't keep up with the track. 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 I should have had a handle on.
    "We should have run better than that…and the team felt we should have been better than that. We are just a little bit disappointed."

   Jimmie Johnson trying Tony Stewart on the inside off turn four at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   One of the day's curious incidents involved Earnhardt and former teammate Mark Martin; Earnhardt got upset with Martin for hogging the high groove in a slower car.
    "There is unwritten etiquette that when the guy is running the top (as Earnhardt was)….I'm coming 10 mph faster…and you stay low. Don't knock a half second off my lap time being a jerk about it. Stay low.
    "You are going to get it in the next corner, and the position is going to be yours. Don't pull up in front of somebody when they are going to come off the corner 10 mph.
     "I didn't really mean to put him in the wall, but from the cosmetic standpoint it didn't look like it hurt his car.
    "I am sorry about that. But I was pretty frustrated."

    Earnhardt wasn't the only man who ran strong early but faded. Kevin Harvick too, finishing 11th.
    "We lost track position, and it killed us," Harvick said. "Track position is so important at these tracks, and once we lost it, we were done, and struggled with the handling from there until the end."


    Not a great Sunday for the Busches. Here Kyle (18) takes a ride. And it wasn't his first trouble of the weekend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  At least they both finished.
    The Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, both had bad days. Kurt Busch got trapped in the pits early with an untimely yellow; then late he ran over some debris and cut a tire, crashing. Just moments later, ironically, Kyle Busch also cut a tire.
   Jeff Gordon at least finished but he ran surprisingly poorly. Never a factor, he was lapped early.

    Tony Stewart (L) and Jimmie Johnson clowning around (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Next up on the NASCAR trail: the judicial appeal by crew chief Chad Knaus over his Daytona 500 penalties, which include a six-week suspension. That comes Tuesday. The odds are NASCAR's appeals panel will uphold the verdict.
   And TV commentator Kyle Petty takes a shot at the NASCAR appeals process in general.
   "You want to talk about a crapshoot, this appeals process is a crapshoot," Petty says. 
    "There are 45 members on this board. If you go the NASCAR rule book you'll see these people's names.  Some of them may have passed away since their names were put in here; that's how old these people are.
    "These people shouldn't be judging Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus…I challenge anybody out there to find me more than eight or 10 out of this 45 who have been to the race track in the last 12 to 24 months.  These people don't go to the race track; they don't understand the process; they don't understand sometimes where this sport is. 
    "They're great business people, they're past drivers, champions, past sports car racers, past engine builders…..
    "Doesn't make any difference. 
     "I think they should be judged by their peers. 
      "In this environment we race in today, if you commit a crime, or you do something, you should be judged by people who understand the sport and what is going on. 
    "I don't think the appeals process is a good process.
     "At the same time I don't think the fine or what they've done to Jimmie Johnson (a major points deduction) and Chad Knaus is anywhere near legit.  It's total BS.  They never should have fined them because the car never made it onto the race track.
     "I'm not even sure I could judge Chad on it, because I don't go down there and watch them put those templates on that car.  I don't know what the sport is sometimes and how it changes.
     "I think (NASCAR president) Mike Helton is a better judge of it;  I think (Sprint Cup tour director) John Darby is a better judge of it;  I think (NASCAR competition director) Robin Pemberton is a better judge of it…because they're right in there.
    "But to take it out of this context and take it somewhere else, I don't like it."


   Tony Stewart at the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Let's get this straight. Two

Let's get this straight. Two cars are contending for the same top 10 position late in the race and one driver is mad that the other driver cut him off and took away his his line, so he puts him in the wall? He even admits that he would have been passed in the next corner, but expects the other driver to wait and put his car on the edge in the corner to get by. I guess the rules are supposed to be the same on the track (even late in the race) as they are on the Interstate highway on the drive home.

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