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Look Out: Tony Stewart Is Back ‘On His Game’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 5 2014

Tony Stewart's health problems appear to be over. Once again, he's leading his team on and off the track. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Like any championship-caliber sports organization, Stewart-Haas Racing doesn’t believe in rebuilding. Stewart-Haas Racing reloads.

SHR’s revised four-car lineup began reintroducing itself to NASCAR Nation last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where newcomer Kurt Busch ended a maddening, 83-race winless streak with a victory in the STP 500.

Saturday afternoon, team co-owner Tony Stewart added to the momentum at Texas Motor Speedway, where the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion qualified on-pole for the 18th annual Duck Commander 500. Stewart toured TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval in 27.628-seconds/195.454 mph during the third session of knockout qualifying to bag his first Coors Light Pole of 2014, second in 24 races here and 15th in 528 career Cup starts.

“Smoke” will share the two-car front row for Sunday’s scheduled 334-lap/501-mile event with Brad Keselowski, who hot-lapped at 27.633-seconds/195.419 mph in the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion fielded by Penske Racing. FOX’s broadcast will begin at 3 p.m. (EDT); the green flag will wave at 3:16 p.m.

Meanwhile, SHR’s Kevin Harvick – another newcomer to the team co-owned by businessman Gene Haas – will start third after clocking a final-session speed of 195.298 mph. That speed was down from the wicked fast out-lap Harvick cracked at 198.282 mph during the opening 25-minutes of time trials. Still, Harvick’s speed now stands as a new track record as well as the fastest qualifying lap recorded on a 1.5-mile oval in NASCAR history. The previous qualifying mark at TMS was held by Kyle Busch, who posted a lap at 196.299 mph at this event last year for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Tony capturing a pole is as good as it gets for the organization,” said Harvick, the former Richard Childress Racing star who scored his first win for SHR at Phoenix International Raceway on March 2. “Tony is on his game, as you can see. It’s qualifying day and Tony is on the pole.”

The pole was Stewart’s first since sister track Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2012 and ended a drought of 38 races between P1 starts.

“Yeah, it was cool,” said Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS. “I’m not normally a qualifier, but our first round we were 16th (195.496 mph) and I didn’t think I ran a very strong lap. So I felt like I could do better the second round and we were second-quick (195.787 mph) after that. The third round it was just a matter of waiting until the end trying to let the tires cool off as much as we could. Got out and had a really good lap. Chad Johnston (crew chief) did an awesome job making an adjustment there at the end and got us freed-up a little bit. It was a little too much, but it was good enough to get us where we needed to be. It was a really strong lap.”

Stewart extended a string that has seen a different pole-winner emerge for each of the season’s seven races. More importantly, Stewart appears to be “racy” and fully-recovered from the season-ending leg and chest injuries he sustained in a Sprint Car accident last summer.

“Obviously, we’re coming in a week after Kurt’s win, which is a great feeling for us,” said Stewart, whose best previous start was seventh last week on the half-mile Martinsville oval. “This is the first time I’ve been able to do something impressive for the team, so I’m excited about that. We’ve got a good year started, to get two of our cars wins already. For us to get a pole – that’s something that we’re pretty proud of right now.”

Keselowski appeared to have the pole locked…until Stewart pipped him. “Tony obviously put down a great lap there at the end. I didn’t see that one coming,” said Keselowski, who qualified on-pole at PIR and won at sister track Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I thought we had it, but that’s why they do it this way. It’s really exciting and I think a lot of fun to watch and, quite honestly, it’s a lot of fun to participate in this new format of qualifying.

“We came up short, but we still have a lot to be proud of starting on the front row. We want to make that count, so hopefully we can pull that off. We did a lot of practice in race runs and not a lot of work in qualifying trim, so I guess that’s a good omen for starting up-front as well. We’ll take it and move on.”

Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing will start fourth in his No. 16 3M/Give Kids A Smile Ford Fusion, with teammate Carl Edwards rounding out the top-five in his No. 99 Fastenal Ford. Denny Hamlin of JGR posted the top Toyota qualifying effort, sixth, in his No. 11 FedEx Office/March of Dimes Camry.

In addition to 2004 Cup champion Busch _ most recently of Furniture Row Racing _ and Harvick, SHR also features marketing superstar Danica Patrick. Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevy, will start 11th; Patrick will wheel her No. 10 GoDaddy/Get Found Chevy from 24th on the 43-car grid. While Stewart’s 15th position in points is best among the SHR lineup, optimism abounds at Team Tony.

“Our cars have had speed,” said Stewart, who is 20 points out of a Chase for the Championship starting spot. “Kurt and Kevin have been qualifying well all year for the most part. This week we had a good run. The good thing is it’s not just one team. The whole organization is having really good starts as far as qualifying is concerned. I don’t know that we can really point to one thing, to be truthful.

“It’s early in the year. I think the atmosphere at our shop is really good right now. It has been ever since the end of the season. Just a lot of new faces and with that has come a new excitement around our shop and it seems to be transferring to what we’re seeing on the racetrack as well.

“I don’t know that it’s a surprise necessarily, especially when we’re talking about all the rule changes for this year. You never know who’s going to hit on things first and who’s going to get out of the gate strong. I guess that‘s one thing that’s probably an equalizer more than anything, is the ability to come out with a new package and have the same opportunity that everybody else, even though we have new people in place this year. If you’re going to learn a new set-up package you might as well learn new people at the same time, so it probably worked hand-in-hand.”

Harvick, 25th in points but with that victory in-hand for the Chase, has found the change of scenery from RCR in Welcome, N.C., to SHR in Kannapolis totally refreshing.

“Honestly, I don’t even think we’ve scratched the surface as a team,” said Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Chevy. “We’re still trying to get all the cars built and everything organized and flowing exactly how it needs to flow in the shop and the fab shop with all the stuff that we’ve changed over the winter, adding a whole new team and bringing in new crew chiefs. I think we’ve just got a few things to clean up and things are going to be coming together even better.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 5 2014
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