AUTOWEEK – In today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, clean air is king. It’s maybe not as important as horsepower and handling, but it’s pretty close.
Second-running Jimmie Johnson couldn’t get enough of that precious clean air late Sunday afternoon to challenge leader Tony Stewart in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In turn, third-running Greg Biffle couldn’t get enough of it to challenge Johnson for second as the race wound down.
“Clean air is very important, it’s everything,” Johnson said after finishing behind Stewart in the 267-lap, 400.5-mile race. “The faster you go, the more it becomes a priority. Today, passing for the lead was tough because the lead car had such a big advantage. If I could have gotten to the outside of Tony (and found even a little clean air) I might have had a chance. That’s why I’m so frustrated at finishing second.”
Biffle expressed the same frustration about trying to catch Johnson for second place. “I’d get within 15 lengths of the 48 (Johnson) and my car would just stop,” he said. “I’d criss-cross the track and try something different, and maybe suck up to within eight lengths. But then I’d go outside (looking for semi-clean air) and the nose would start sliding because of the dirty air on the outside. Definitely, the guy out front has got it made.”
Stewart, the three-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion for his own Stewart Haas Racing, was in clean air most of the afternoon. He led three times for 127 of the 267 laps, including the final 34 laps and 85 of the last 88. It was his first LVMS win in 14 starts, his first with new crew chief Steve Addington and the 45th of his career. He’s now won at every Cup venue except Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway.
But Sunday’s win was tougher than it might sound, given that Stewart had to survive four late-race restarts. He proved perfect on each one, beating Johnson, Biffle, Ryan Newman (his Stewart Haas teammate), Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Trevor Bayne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was consistently quicker on the launch, once going from third to first by using the flat frontstretch apron between the start-finish line and turn one.
“I cringed every time the caution came out because I knew I had to hold off so many people,” he said after one of his rare spring wins. “It seemed like just as I’d built a little lead and started to relax, the caution came out and I’d have to go through it again. I’d get the initial jump and fight for about two-and-a-half laps. Then I’d stay even for the next two-and-a-half laps, then start pulling away at maybe lap seven or eight. But it always took me that long to build a little lead.
“Then the caution would come out and it’d be, ‘Oh, not again.’ I mean, I wondered how often I was going to have to risk losing the race. There was a lot of pressure on these first few laps after the restart and I had to be spot-on. That was our strong suit today, getting off to those good restarts.”
Eleven drivers led at the 1.5-mile track north of Las Vegas. Earnhardt Jr. led most of the first 75 laps before yielding to Johnson, Stewart and Matt Kenseth for lengthy periods. Biffle, Bowyer, David Ragan, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger and Jeff Gordon also led a few laps. Most of the lead changes came under caution or when pit stops cycled through.
“We felt that Jimmie and Matt (Kenseth) would the guys we’d battle with,” Stewart said. “The hard part was looking at the time sheet Saturday night and seeing how many guys were right together, speed-wise. You knew it was going to be a tough day to get an advantage. It didn’t take long to see they were the best two, and maybe we were third. The clean air evened out what we’d seen all day.”
Sunday’s win scratched two itches for Stewart, First, he dominated last March, leading 163 of the first 234 laps before a late-race pit penalty left him second to Carl Edwards. “Somebody’s going to have to tell me how we lost this race,” he said famously at the time. On Sunday, he expounded: “It’s hard when you lose like we did last year,” he said. “We had to wait 365 days to come back and have a shot at it again. I wouldn’t have been in such a bad mood on the plane back (to North Carolina) if I’d known we’d be sitting here (after winning) this year.”
And, second, Darian Grubb, who helped Stewart win five races and last year’s Sprint Cup before being fired, is crew chief for Denny Hamlin, last weekend’s Phoenix winner. “It was neat to see Darian and Denny get a win last week, and it’s neat to see me and Steve get a win this week,” Stewart said. “Hopefully, it will calm everybody down. I’m glad both teams have come out strong.”
Tribute to “Lionheart”
Earnhardt-Ganassi-Sabates drivers Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya carrued “Lionheart” decals in Sunday’s 400-miler in memory of Dan Wheldon. The two-time Indy 500 winner who was killed at LVMS in last fall’s season-ending IZOD IndyCar race drove for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Smith also to the rear
Add Chevrolet driver Regan Smith to the list of drivers that started the Kobalt Tools 400 from the rear of the 43-car grid. Smith’s No. 78 Furniture Row team changed transmissions on Saturday afternoon, a post-qualifying adjustment that sent them to the rear. Smith was the 28th–fastest qualifier on Friday afternoon.
Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson also will start from the back of the grid. Montoya’s team changed the engine in his No. 42 Chevrolet and Busch (No.18 Toyota) and Johnson (No. 48 Chevrolet) will use a backup car after wrecking their primary one in Saturday practice.
Stenhouse joins a small club
On Saturday, Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. became the first non-Cup driver to win a Nationwide Series race in the last 15 years at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. All told, only two non-Cup drivers have won in the track’s 16 Nationwide races: Jeff Green in 1997 and Stenhouse Jr. on Saturday.
Among Cup drivers, Mark Martin has won four of the 16, Jeff Burton three, Kevin Harvick two and Jimmy Spencer, Todd Bodine, Joe Nemechek, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle one each.
Coming up soon
NASCAR’s top two series are together again next weekend, the fourth consecutive time the Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series have shared the spotlight. Nationwide has a 250-lap race next Saturday afternoon and Cup has a 500-lap race next Sunday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway. They’ll also be together the weekend of March 24-25, the Nationwide Series on Saturday and the Cup Series on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, Calif.
The third-tier Camping World Truck Series returns on March 31 at Martinsville Speedway, sharing the track with the Sprint Cup Series. The Nationwide Series has its first open date that weekend.
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