NASCAR’s made two trips out to the western United States for intermediate races this season. Tony Stewart is basically perfect so far in those events.
However, the race was a Joe Gibbs Racing benefit early on. Denny Hamlin won the pole and dominated practice. However, once the race started, Kyle Busch came to the forefront. He passed Hamlin on the second lap of the race for the lead and pulled away.
Unfortunately, the big story of Sunday’s race (March 25) wasn’t even the action on track. All weekend, meteorologists were forecasting a 100% chance of rain for Sunday afternoon. Luckily, the rains held off long enough for NASCAR to start the event a little early. Regardless, racing against the rain set a tone for the race. Drive as fast as you can, but as carefully as you can.
Busch held onto the lead through the first two rounds of pit stops, all the while lapping well up into the midfield. However, on lap 84, Busch caught Juan Pablo Montoya, who was running in 21st, last driver on the lead lap. Montoya raced Busch to stay on the lead lap quite hard, holding the No. 18 at bay. Eventually, Busch had to back off a little to preserve his tires.
This allowed Stewart to run down Busch from a second and a half behind. At the end of lap 85, Stewart made his move on the outside of Busch exiting turn 4. He was able to complete the pass entering turn 1 and quickly dispatched the pesky Montoya as well. From there, Stewart quickly pulled away and held his advantage through a round of pit stops.
When the rains finally came on lap 125, bringing out the first and only yellow of the race, Stewart executed a fake out on much of the rest of the drivers on the lead lap when pit road opened. Staying out allowed Stewart to maintain his lead. A couple of laps later, NASCAR “lost the track” and pulled the field onto pit road.
After a conference of officials and some cursory attempts to dry the track, it was determined that the rains were likely to stick around for a while, making it impossible to dry the track and restart in a timely manner. With the race already past the halfway point, it was thus declared to be an official race and Stewart was declared the winner.
For Stewart, it is his second victory of 2012 and the seventh since the beginning of the Chase last season. After the race, he was very happy with his day.
“Our car drove really, really well in traffic. Felt like it was real maneuverable as far as being able to move to different spots on the racetrack than other guys were at,” Stewart said.
“Steve did an awesome job all day of the changes that he made. Every time he changed something, the car really responded well to it. That’s when you know you have a real good racecar under you, when you make little changes and it makes a big difference. He did an awesome job. Each run we got better and better and better.”
Second-place Kyle Busch was happy with his result, but wishing that he had more time.
“We had a great racecar there from the beginning of the race,” Busch said in the post-race press conference. “Glad we were able to run that way and up front like we’re supposed to and to our potential, that we had a day where we didn’t have attrition or something else get in our way. I just wish we led 30 more [laps] and we’d be in a different position right now.”
Behind Stewart and Kyle Busch was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in third. Kevin Harvick finished fourth, while Carl Edwards rounded out the top five. Points leader Greg Biffle was sixth, followed by Ryan Newman. Martin Truex Jr. was eighth, followed by Kurt Busch in the Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. Jimmie Johnson, who was the first driver off of pit road under the race’s only caution, rounded out the top 10.
For Johnson, having the rains force an early end to the proceedings was the only way that he could have legitimately finished well on Sunday. After leaving pit road under caution, Johnson’s No. 48 began smoking heavily due to an oil leak. With the rain falling and the radar looking quite ugly, crew chief Chad Knaus chose to leave Johnson out on track. This turned out to be a good decision.
Next weekend, the Sprint Cup Series returns to action at the paperclip, Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Va. Coverage starts Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. ET.
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