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Where There’s Heat, There’s Smoke: Stewart Wins at The Glen

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 11 2009
Tony Stewart takes the checkered flag at Monday's Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Tony Stewart takes the checkered flag at Monday's Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Watkins Glen, N.Y. – Tony Stewart’s grip on a third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship got a little tighter Monday afternoon at Watkins Glen International.

A day after rain washed-out the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen, Stewart turned the sticky summertime conditions in the Finger Lakes Region to his advantage by scoring his third victory of the season – and a record fifth on the historic 2.45-mile layout.

“It’s awesome,” said Stewart, who admittedly is exceeding expectations in his first year as owner/driver of Stewart Haas Racing. “I mean, I think the bigger honor was last year when we got inducted into one of the Drivers of the Decade here. That’s something that means a lot to me. This place has just been good to us. It’s neat to be a guy that’s won the most races here in the series.”

Stewart took the lead for good from defending event champion Kyle Busch on a restart on Lap 67, when Busch’s decision to start from the outside lane backfired. Stewart raced Busch side-by-side through Turn 1 and used his inside position to power into the lead before entering the uphill Esses complex of twists that are the track’s signature.

“I think it’s a hard decision when you’re a leader to decide exactly where you think you need to be,” said Stewart, who also stretched his championship lead to 260 points over runner-up Jimmie Johnson, the polesitter. “But for here, it’s a matter of how good you think you can get into (Turn) 1 that’s going to dictate what side you want.”

For the record, Stewart chose the inside line for the race’s final restart on Lap 74, when Cup rookie Marcos Ambrose was positioning himself for his first series win. But neither Ambrose nor third-place Carl Edwards could match Stewart under his favorite conditions.

“I like it when it gets hot and slick here,” said Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS. “It seems it’s like that way anywhere. It kind of played into our hand for the last 10 years. This part of the year, when the temperatures are at their highest, we tend to pick up, I believe. I think we can handle the slicker conditions better than some of the guys around us.

“You know, I’m excited about it. It’s nice to be able to be in position where you know when it gets hot like that, a lot of guys panic because it’s going to get slick. I get excited when I know it’s going to get slick.”

Stewart also benefitted from the savvy of crew chief Darian Grubb – who doubled as weatherman as the 90-lap race wound down.

“Definitely, track temperature and everything (humidity) went way up today,” said Grubb, who is in his first year of working with Stewart. “We kind of planned ahead for it, made some adjustments. Some of those adjustments didn’t work and we had to back out of them during that first pit stop. Pretty proud to say we made a good prediction, but we made the wrong adjustment, was able to know what it is, back out, fix the car. Tony got to where he was happy with the car after that and the lap times picked up for sure. We were able to keep the momentum and track position going after that.”

Busch’s day began to unravel with that decision to restart from the outside lane. But he compounded the mistake on Lap 68 when he locked up the brakes on his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry heading into Turn 10, allowing Ambrose and Greg Biffle to blast past. From there, only Ambrose was a factor as he sought to add a breakthrough Cup win to the second consecutive Nationwide Series victory at the Glen that he posted at Busch’s expense on Saturday.

“Yeah, just a great weekend for us,” said Ambrose, the Australian road-course ace and driver of the No. 47 Little Debbie/Kingsford/Clorox Toyota. “We didn’t have quite enough to get Tony there at the end. I threw everything I could at him. I could close in on him, I could see him starting to make a few little mistakes, locking tires, but not enough for me to catch him. Just really proud of my team. Really excited for our future.”

The victory was Stewart’s seventh on a Cup road-course, two fewer than four-time series champion Jeff Gordon’s all-time record. Stewart’s margin of victory was 2.969-seconds in a race he led twice for an event-high 34 laps.

“It was just a matter of when Marcos got to second, (of) making sure on the restart that we didn’t give him an opening,” said Stewart, who began the day with a 197-point lead over Johnson, the three-time and reigning Cup champion who finished 12th. “Getting into (Turn) 1, being a road-race veteran like he (Ambrose) is, he knows how to get the most out of his brakes, he knows how to make the most out of the braking zone. My biggest concern was not letting him get to the inside, getting a good jump on the restart, not spinning the tires, not missing the shift _ no mistakes in (Turn) 1. I figured I was going to have to go all the way to Turn 2 before I got it sorted out.

“The good thing is, he went from the outside lane and tried to come to the inside. We were able to take that line away from him, force him to go back out. That took his opportunity to get a run on us away. Once we got up through the Esses, we were in good shape and never really had to worry about it.

“There were spots on the track he was a little stronger than us, but I thought there were equally the same amount of spots that we were a little better than he was. I felt like lap time-wise they pretty much evened-out. I was pretty happy with the day.”

While Stewart clicked in the slick conditions, Ambrose said his setup selection was hit-and-miss and he was working with Goodyear radial tires with more laps on them than Stewart’s.

“I thought our car in practice on Saturday was better than what we had today,” said Ambrose, who posted his sixth top-10 finish of 2009. “It was on the edge the whole time. If I had the perfect line, did everything just right, I could get away with it. But the track was slick. We were slightly aggressive on our setup for it. We didn’t really get a chance to tune on it, either. I think we only changed a quarter pound of tire pressure all day because we were pitting under green and didn’t have time to do anything to it.”

Edwards, sixth in Cup points, posted his fourth top-10 finish in five starts at WGI on a day he started 33rd in the 43-car field.

“From 33rd to third – that was a good, solid day for us,” said Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion. “Just a perfect day for points for us. I wanted to win this thing really badly. That was one of my goals this year, to win a road-course race. I really, really wanted to win today. But third place, we’ll take it. To finish in front of Kyle, who was 13th in points, that’s good for us. To finish behind Marcos and Tony, closing on them at the end, that felt good.”

Busch, of Joe Gibbs Racing, remained 13th in points – one spot behind the final qualifying position for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. With four events to go before the Chase ramps up, Busch trails former series champion Matt Kenseth, Edwards’ teammate at Roush Fenway Racing, by 58 points.

“To make ground on 13th (Busch), other than win races, that’s the mission for the No. 99 team right now,” Edwards said. “That’s all I was thinking about.”

The race was red-flagged to a halt for 19 minutes, 35 seconds following a grinding, six-car crash triggered by contact between Kasey Kahne and Sam Hornish Jr. on Lap 64 in Turn 9. Pushed off-track by Kahne, Hornish slammed into a tire barrier and the impact sent his spinning car back across the track and into the path of Gordon. The resulting carnage also collected the cars of Jeff Burton, Joey Logano and rookie Andy Lally. None of the drivers were seriously injured, although Gordon tweaked his lower back.

Biffle finished fifth, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, rookie Max Papis, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin. Stewart’s winning average speed was 90.297 mph in an event that took 2 hours, 26 minutes, 31 seconds before an estimated 85,000 fans who saw Stewart tighten his grip on a possible third title.

“That’s way too early to do (predict) that,” said Stewart, who won his championships in 2002 and 2005 while driving for JGR and crew chief Greg Zipadelli. “There’s so much that can happen still. I feel like we’re in a good spot to be a contender for it. I’m not sure I feel like we’re a dominant contender yet. It’s hard because there’s so many good teams. The 48 (Johnson), the 24 (Gordon) the 11 (Hamlin) – they’ve been really, really strong in the last couple of weeks. I think those are the three guys that we’re worried about the most now.

“We’ll keep working hard. I mean, that’s what we have to do.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 11 2009