— For the 42 other teams racing in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, it’s probably time to be in worry mode.
Defending champion Tony Stewart is known for slow starts to seasons before peaking when the dogs days of August set in. That scenario can be thrown out the window.
Last year, “Smoke” lamented that his team was not going to challenge for the championship, he then reeled off five wins in the Chase to finish in a tie atop the points standings with Carl Edwards. Stewart won the title based on having more race wins than Edwards.
Through the first five races of this season, Stewart already has scored two wins, at Las Vegas and California, and is fourth in the point standings.
The Rushville Rocket has won seven of the past 15 Sprint Cup races and the team is hitting on all eight cylinders.
Many wondered about Stewart’s decision at the end of the 2011 season to replace his crew chief with Steve Addington. That now looks like a winning move for Stewart.
With the prospects of a rain-shortened race at California, Stewart charged to the lead on lap 85 with a pass of Kyle Busch and during a round of green flag pit stops was back in the lead when rain halted the race on lap 129.
“It’s been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have,” Stewart commented after the win. “The history shows the last 13 years, we haven’t had the strongest start the first third of the year.”
While Stewart was celebrating in victory lane, the collective leadership has to be shaking their heads at the decision made by Denny Hamlin’s crew to make an ill-advised pit stop with rain falling on lap 125, which resulted in an 11th-place finish.
Everyone knew that the race was going to be interrupted and possibly halted by rain. Hamlin’s crew made the wrong decision.
Maybe the biggest winner at California other than Stewart was Jimmie Johnson. Johnson’s car developed an oil leak during the caution laps and had the race continued the team was looking at lengthy repairs.
Instead the rains came, the race was declared official and Johnson finished 10th. It was the ending to a good week for the five-time champion, who regained 25 driver and owner points when a penalty at Daytona was overturned.
Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t won a race in several years and has only one victory since joining Hendrick Motorsports, Little E has also gotten off to a strong start this year.
I expect Earnhardt to score the victory at Talladega when the series travels to Alabama next month.
In other racing news
I liked the look of the new Izod IndyCar series car on the street of St. Petersburg in which Helio Castroneves scored the win after failing to secure a victory in 2011.
There were some issues with engines, particularly with the Lotus-powered cars. It will be interesting to see how the cars perform on a true road course this weekend in Alabama.
• Ken de la Bastide may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 765-454-8580.