Can Stewart continue his surprising Daytona 500 success?
The first chance for Stewart-Haas to prove its the real deal comes in Vegas
A small favor: will NASCAR fans please stop complaining about corporate greed?
Explaining why history bodes well for Matt Kenseth at California Speedway
The biggest surprise for me at Daytona -- besides the troubling performances by most of the Hendrick-Motorsports fleet -- was how well Tony Stewart ran all day. Yes, the man is a two-time Cup champion. Yes, he's led a lot of laps at Daytona before. And yes, his new Stewart-Haas team is outfitted with Hendrick equipment. But I was skeptical that the fledgling operation could be so competitive so soon.
The big reason I felt this way was that Stewart and new teammate Ryan Newman each had only one offseason test session before they arrived in Daytona for Speedweeks. It's true that nobody else in the sport got to do much testing this winter, but it's also true that Stewart and Newman were both making their Cup debuts in Chevy's new car (they had raced with Toyotas and Dodges, respectively, last season).
My guess is that most of the team's big boost came from Stewart's crew chief, Darien Grubb, a veteran hand at Hendrick and a winner of two Cup races himself. Grubb's familiarity with the Hendrick-Chevy equipment that the new team was using was certainly invaluable in getting its cars ready to race. And I guess it's no surprise that Stewart seemed much better most of the day than Newman, whose crew chief, Tony Gibson, was formerly a pit boss at DEI.
Can Stewart-Haas continue to be this good? I remain a tad skeptical about that, mostly because recent history has shown us that a strong performance at Daytona is not necessarily a harbinger of good things to come -- one need look no further than 2008 Daytona champ Newman for the most recent example. After his victory last year, Flyin' Ryan earned just seven more top-10 finishes in the next 35 races, and wound up 17th overall in points.
I expect we're going to get a better feel for how good Stewart's new team can be when the series heads to Las Vegas on March 1. Vegas will be the outfit's first test on the sort of intermediate tracks that make up the bulk of the Cup schedule. With a strong performance there, Stewart-Haas can make a believer out of me.
10: Top-10 finishes (in 14 starts) for Matt Kenseth at California Speedway, including two victories
6: Number of wins at California by Kenseth and his teammates (Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan) at Roush Fenway Racing
4: Victories for Roush Fenway Racing in the last four Auto Club 500s at California
THE PHOTO FINISH
When I tell people that I cover NASCAR for Sports Illustrated, I get about four or five very predictable responses, one of which is a complaint about all the corporate involvement in the sport and how "ugly" it makes everything. When I hear this, my reaction is usually to smile politely and move on to another topic (And what do you do? usually works just fine). But afterwards I'm always nagged by thoughts of what I should have said, and over the years I've built up quite a mental checklist that outlines all the reasons why the "corporate complaint" is a truly stupid one to make. At the top of this list, of course, is the simple point that corporations provide just about everything that makes the American lifestyle possible, which is something some supposedly smart people don't ever seem to grasp, even as they fiddle with their super-trendy iPhones.
Last week at Daytona, I thought Tony Stewart made another thoughtful argument against the "corporate complaint." That wasn't his intent, of course, but just watch him rail against Goodyear in this clip. If you don't want to watch the whole thing, the first two minutes or so will do just fine.
That's a pretty damning indictment. And I can't think of an athlete in another sport who's come down so hard on a major corporate sponsor of said sport. The controversy over maple bats in Major League Baseball might have some incident that comes close, but I can't think of a lumber-induced tirade from big-leaguer with the stature of Stewart. (If you can, please feel free to let me know.)
So if corporate involvement is what turns some people off about NASCAR, then it's only because those people are probably predisposed to hate racing anyway. If you hate the game, just hate the game itself. But spare me the sanctimonious anti-greed stuff in the future, please.