Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pass the salt, please

I was in denial at the end of the 2008 NASCAR season. I was among the many who couldn't believe that Tony Stewart would give up a successful career with Joe Gibbs Racing for anything other than retirement. When that concept finally sank in, I found myself among the many who thought it would take a long time for Stewart-Haas Racing to build to a level at which it could be competitive among the strong teams that run in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

I am happy to admit how wrong I was. Stewart's #14 team came out of the box strong, with three eighth-place finishes in the first four races. In the last six points races, Stewart has finished in the top five five times. He is currently second in the points standings, 29 points out of the lead.

Stewart's team mate Ryan Newman got off on a rocky start to the season, but has shown steady improvement over the last seven races, with three top fives in the last three points races.

It has become pretty much a given that SHR will see at least one victory in the near future, as both drivers from that team come closer to winning with each race. So we had to eat crow and develop a liking for consuming the proverbial dirty bird. There will be no complaints about it from this writer, anyway.

To date, Stewart-Haas Racing's finest hour was Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup All Star Challenge. Ryan Newman's car developed serious suspension problems in the second segment, and it was only an act of generosity on segment leader Jimmie Johnson's part that kept him from going two laps down. Thanks to the "Lucky Dawg" free pass, Newman was able to start the third segment on the lead lap.His car had been repaired, and he was able to hold his own during that segment. Two laps into the final "Shootout" ten lap segment, Busch, Newman, and Gordon entered turn three, battling for the lead. Newman moved to the outside of Busch, and Gordon to the inside, putting the three cars side by side. The racing area seems to compress coming out of turn four, and where there were three cars, there was only room for two. Somebody would have to lift off of the accelerator, but who would do that when one million dollars was at stake? The answer was, nobody.

Kyle Busch, seeing Gordon drifting up the track, faces a choice--he could give Gordon room, which would mean drifting up into Newman, who is not in a position to give any more room since he is already against the wall. Running into Newman would likely be worse than running into Gordon, because running into Newman would likely result in both of them wrecking and giving Gordon the lead. Making contact with Gordon would be the better choice, because there would be more room to move.

Of course, this complicated thought process is not what goes through a driver's mind while such a situation is developing at 185 mph. Natural talent, experience, and skill combine to create an instinctive reaction that occurs faster than the speed of thought. If anything crossed the mind of any of the three drivers, it was "Somebody has to let up, and I'm going to be the one to make them do it."

Three gunfighters at the shootout, and all three of them go for their guns at the same instant. As Gordon moves up, Busch moves down, and the two make contact. The rebound knocks Busch into Newman, and both slap the outside wall, while Gordon spins through the infield. It almost looks as though Gordon is going to save it, but his car travels back up the track and nose-first into the wall, bringing out the caution.

After the clean up, the survivors line up according to the position they were in at the last completed lap. So, it is Kenseth first, Newman second, Kyle Busch third, and Tony Stewart fourth. But Newman recieved enough damage to his car from hitting the wall that he has to drop out of the race, while Kenseth and Busch battle for the lead. Stewart follows them warily as the laps count down. The chess game of playing the inner groove against the outer groove continues, until Kenseth finally gets the upper hand and clears Kyle Busch. Stewart makes his move, and gets past Busch while hugging the bottom, with five laps to go. It's another chess match, and Stewart gains on Kenseth, still taking the bottom. The lead changes twice during the lap, and Kenseth retains the lead out of turn four, but Stewart has the faster car, so Kenseth takes the line Stewart is using. Another lap counts down. To turn three again, and Kenseth can't hold his car on the bottom and keep his speed up at the same time. Stewart slips below him and takes the lead.

The final two laps seem to take forever, but Stewart leads them both and wins. Victory is sweet. It's only a non points race, but it feels like Smoke just won the championship. This is his first victory as an owner/driver. It is also the first All Star victory by an owner/driver since Geoffrey Bodine won in 1994. And, if I am not mistaken, it is the first victory ever for the Haas organization at the Cup level.

We should have known that Tony Stewart can do anything that people tell him he can't do. We should have seen that he is a good organization builder, and he knows how to get the right people and put them in the right place. But we had our lapse of faith and were proven wrong.

I am glad that I have the opportunity to admit I was wrong, and now I am happy to eat my words. Pass the salt, please.

1 comment:

JMD said...

It is great to see Tony doing so well with his new team. I am sure a points win is just around the corner.

Jim, should we bake you a cake to eat your words like they did for Benny Parsons after he said Harry Gant did not have a chance to win at Martinsville for 4 in a row after a crash but he did???