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Caraviello: Stewart sends signal with surprising spring surge

March 25, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Stewart sends signal with surprising spring surge

FONTANA, Calif. -- It wasn't the most memorable of Victory Lane celebrations, not with the rain falling and a crowd of people jammed into a relatively small covered space between pit road and the garage area at Auto Club Speedway. The winning No. 14 car was rolled in for a few photos, and then rolled right back out. The usual trappings of post-race festivity -- the spraying of champagne, the shooting of confetti -- became victims of the weather.

Not that it mattered. Be it sunny Las Vegas, gloomy Southern California, or under the lights in metro Miami, the routine is ultimately the same -- Tony Stewart holding up two fingers in a victory sign, and posing for photos before the trophy of the week. Stewart's win in Sunday's rain-shortened event at Auto Club was his second of this young season and his seventh in the 15 Sprint Cup events dating to the start of last year's Chase. It's a rather phenomenal run given not only both the change of the calendar but a change in personnel, and it's now extended into a time of year where traditionally the three-time champion is not known to be at his best.

Clearly, that's not the case anymore. For years we've seen what Stewart is capable of in warmer months when race tracks turn hot and slick, and his sprint-car background affords him a degree of car control that pays dividends when the mercury begins its inevitable climb north. We know what he can do in the Chase, given how last season he took the championship in his teeth and with five race victories in the playoff ripped it from Carl Edwards' grasp. Now we're seeing something new -- and perhaps, to the competition, much more foreboding -- in the form of a springtime surge by a driver who's never really shown one before.

"Not in this series," Stewart said. "It's been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have. The history shows in the last 13 years we have not had the strongest starts the first third of the year. I'm really, really excited about the start that we've got going. We've been strong everywhere we've been. I mean, Daytona was probably our weakest race, and I know I made decisions trying to make things happen, and didn't work out, but it wasn't because our cars weren't good. We've had top-10 cars and top-five cars every race this year after that. So really, really proud of what Steve and all of our guys at Stewart-Haas Racing have done."

That would be Steve Addington, the crew chief who came aboard this season to replace Darian Grubb, who was ousted effective at the end of last season's Chase even though his handiwork helped net a first championship for the Stewart-Haas organization. Everyone wondered if Stewart would miss a beat, or least suffer through some rocky transition period as a result. If anything, the opposite has happened -- he's only become stronger, his victory at Fontana coming two weeks after one at Las Vegas, his cars appearing more consistent week to week than they were even during the final third of last year.

Stewart won last year's championship in a tiebreaker. He keeps this up, he'll be a backbreaker.

"I've said it all along -- the group of people they have in place there at Stewart-Haas Racing is just unbelievable," said Addington, who once worked at Joe Gibbs Racing, where Stewart won his first two titles. "I mean, it's just racers, guys that want to work. There's a lot of smart people that give you support. You can ask a question and somebody will have you an answer really fast. Getting in there, getting to know personalities, things like that, you learn how to work and deal with each person. No, it doesn't surprise me."

* Press Pass: Stewart talks about his rain-shortened win

Although rain cut short Sunday's event 71 laps from the scheduled finish, there was no question who had the best car. Stewart gradually cut into the advantage established by early leader Kyle Busch, passing his former Gibbs teammate at the start/finish line on Lap 85. He held the lead through a series of green-flag pit cycles in an event that featured only one caution, that issued when rain began to fall on Lap 123. Stewart acted as if he were about to pit, dipping his car low toward the pit-road entrance, but jerked it back onto the racing surface at the last moment and maintained a lead he would hold though a red flag -- and, ultimately, until NASCAR officials called the event for rain.

"You hate to have them end with rain like that. But I've lost some that way," Stewart said. "The good thing is, we didn't back into the lead because we stayed out, the leaders came in. I mean, we were leading the thing and had earned that spot. Proud of that."

"It's been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have. ... I'm really, really excited about the start that we've got going."

--TONY STEWART

Had the day been sunny and the event stayed green, that black and red No. 14 car would almost have certainly been the vehicle to beat at the finish. It's all a product of a team that didn't bask in its accomplishments even after winning the championship, an organization that made personnel changes like bringing aboard Addington and competition director Greg Zipadelli, that shook things up even when it had no reason. The celebration of last season's championship had barely quieted, Stewart said, when his guys began turning their attention to the next year.

"It's easy for teams, when they have success, to kind of slow down a little bit, take a breath, feel like they're exactly where they need to be. That's probably the one thing I was most excited about through this winter, was watching our guys, listening to their comments about how excited they were to have the success we had, but how they were looking forward to next year and trying to be able to duplicate that," Stewart said.

"To see somebody like Steve come into the organization through the winter, learn a whole new group of people, a whole pit crew. A lot of times when crew chiefs change race teams, they bring the whole team with them. Steve came by himself to our organization and had to learn a whole different group of guys to work with. I think he's settled in quickly and really gets along good with our guys, learned our system really quick. He brings so much to the table. We've learned a lot from him. He's made great adjustments through the offseason and those results are showing right now. It was a long offseason. To watch these guys work that hard, it's nice to end the year on a high note like we did, and to be able to come out of the box and carry that momentum with a new competition director and new crew chief, I think it shows the depth of our program and our group of guys back at our shop."

And it shows just how dangerous Stewart, now fourth in points but with two wins in a sport where victories mean so much more, has become. We're not yet into the summer, when most of his race wins at NASCAR's highest level have come. We're not yet into the Chase, where he's shown what he can do by force of will. Stewart is riding the wave at a time of year when he's supposed to be searching, or laying the groundwork for later, or fighting his way out of a hole. Stick those tiebreaker scenarios in a drawer. He keeps this up, they won't be necessary.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch Stewart's fast start to the season, including his win at Auto Club: