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STURBIN: Stewart From Hall of Fame To Wall And Shame

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 13 2012

Tony Stewart leads Carl Edwards during last fall's race at Texas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

FORT WORTH, Texas _ Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart reluctantly donned his boxing-inspired red velvet “Smoke” robe one last time Thursday night at Texas Motor Speedway, where he was honored as the track’s Racer of the Year for 2011.

And on Friday afternoon, Stewart donned a dunce cap after scraping the wall during final practice for the Samsung Mobile 500.

“I just got loose and didn’t have enough racetrack to get it gathered-up. So, driver error,” said Stewart, prior to qualifying his backup No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala 29th (186.944 mph) after a late-afternoon engine swap. Because he changed cars before the qualifying session, Stewart will not have to drop to the rear of the 43-car field for Saturday night’s scheduled 334-lapper.

Stewart actually joked about his struggles Thursday night during the annual Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame induction ceremony at The Speedway Club, noting he hit “everything but the fence” during the day’s lone practice session around the 1.5-mile quadoval. Stewart admittedly was puzzled, as his Stewart-Haas Racing team had tire-tested for Goodyear earlier this spring.

“I mean, we ran really well at the test but it was 40 degrees cooler, too,” said Stewart, a three-time Cup champion. “I think we tried some things that we thought were better and it probably was for the conditions, but I’m not sure in the heat it was quite as good. We are kind of going back to the direction that we were last fall now.”

Stewart made a major move toward his third championship on Nov. 6 when he won the AAA Texas 500, Race No. 8 of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Stewart’s win by 1.092-seconds over Carl Edwards was one of five “Smoke” scored during NASCAR’s postseason. The outcome basically set the stage for Stewart’s showdown with Ford Racing star Edwards, of Roush Fenway Racing, for the 2011 championship.

Eddie Gossage, TMS’ president, fanned the flames of that rivalry by staging a boxing-style promotion in the infield media center complete with lockers featuring robes, boxing gloves, headgear and mouthpieces. Stewart donned the robe during his Victory Lane celebration and hammed-it-up with a clenched-fist pose. Neither Stewart nor Edwards finished worse than third during the season’s final three races and ended up tied in points at Homestead-Miami Speedway after 36 events. Stewart won via the most-wins tiebreaker.

Stewart’s backup car is the same Chevy that dominated here in the fall, when he led 173 of 334 laps. Stewart also won in the car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a sister 1.5-mile track to TMS, last month.

“I think we feel better with this one so far,” said Stewart, who is third in points after six races, 12 behind leader Greg Biffle’s Ford Fusion fielded by Roush Fenway Racing. “It’s doing everything that we were trying to get the other one to do.

“I’m not going to say it (the tire test) pointed us in the wrong direction but I think we thought we were better with some things that don’t seem to be better with these conditions the way they are,” said Stewart, who also won at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., last month. “I think when we were here the stuff we learned was definitely productive, just maybe not for 40 degrees warmer.”

Stewart added he was fully confident with the backup for the season’s first night race. “The top-tier teams, their backup cars are just as good as their primary cars,” Stewart said. “So, definitely no concerns.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 13 2012
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