Smoke flashes winning form, again, plus more lessons from Las Vegas
Tony Stewart got that elusive first win at LVMS and his second victory in March
Smoke shined on the race's restarts, including a key pass with 34 laps remaining
Jimmie Johnson nearly went from worst to first, finishing second on Sunday
After starting the season on a restrictor-plate superspeedway at Daytona followed by a trip to the first intermediate oval race of the season at Phoenix, NASCAR touched down at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday for the first true test of Sprint Cup racing this season.
It was the first race on a 1.5-mile high-banked track -- the same design that dominates the Cup schedule.
The teams and drivers that excel on the those tracks are generally the ones that will battle it out for the Cup title. That is why it was no surprise to see last year's Cup champion, Tony Stewart, return to the front of the field. Stewart's start to 2012 was slowed when he was involved in a late-race crash in the Daytona 500 and was doomed in Week Two when an Electronic Control Unit (ECU) failed after he cut off the engine trying to save fuel late in the race at Phoenix.
Stewart won for the first time at Las Vegas and, although he has 45 career Cup wins, it was just his second victory in March.
We've got a lot to cover so let's get straight to the "Five Things We Learned at Las Vegas."
1. Tony Stewart returned to championship form -- For a man who loves to get up at noon, it's little surprise that Stewart usually gets off to a slow start every season. But the three-time Cup champion may be an early riser when it comes to the battle for the title in 2012, as Sunday's win was the earliest in the season he's ever hit Victory Lane.
Stewart had the dominant race car when it mattered but clinched the victory with his ability to restart over the race's final caution periods.
When the green flag waved with 34 laps to go, Stewart reverted to the aggressive form he displayed last November at Homestead. He drove under the white line on the frontstretch to steal the lead in a three-wide battle that also included Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. Stewart had started third after pit stops but didn't stay there long.
Landon Cassill's engine blew up with 24 laps to go, once again setting up a restart with 17 laps to go. Stewart was in front, Keselowski spun his tires and that allowed the three-time Cup champion to drive away from Greg Biffle.
Johnson was able to pass Biffle for second and began to pursue Stewart's Chevrolet. And while Stewart was able to maintain his advantage, a hard crash by Vegas native Kurt Busch added to the tension inside Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet. In a side-by-side restart with nine laps to go Stewart was on the inside with Johnson's Chevy on the outside. Stewart was able to get a great restart, Johnson spun his tires and Stewart "smoked 'em" before another Busch -- Kyle -- spun out of the fourth turn when his left rear tire went flat.
So with four laps to go and another restart, Stewart hit the gas, but this time Johnson had a better restart. Johnson's Chevrolet was also better off the corner, but Stewart's car was superior getting into the corner.
In a battle of two of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, Stewart drove to victory for his sixth win in the last 13 races -- a stretch that began with the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway last September.
Stewart dominated last year's Vegas race, leading 163 of 267 laps, but fell to Carl Edwards on fuel mileage. This time around, he finally got a chance to hit the jackpot.
"We had a dominant car last year -- I don't know if we had the dominant car today but we were so strong on restarts," Stewart said in Victory Lane after leading a race-high 127 laps. "I knew as long as we got the clean air I could hold those guys off."
2. It all adds up for Steve Addington -- Not only was the victory big for Stewart, but it also was huge for his new crew chief, Steve Addington. When Stewart made the decision that former crew chief Darian Grubb would be released at the end of the Chase last year, it was a tough call. When Stewart and Grubb ended up winning the title together, it seemed like a highly questionable call.
But Stewart sensed something in Addington that could make his team even better. Stewart stuck to the plan, parting ways with Grubb and adding Addington to the team. Ironically, Grubb went to work as Denny Hamlin's crew chief and was the first of the two to make it to Victory Lane when Hamlin won last week at Phoenix.
On Sunday, it was Addington's turn to celebrate with his new driver -- the grizzled old racer from Columbus, Ind.
This should ease the skepticism surrounding Stewart's decision to break up a championship combination. With Grubb improving Hamlin's fortunes, and Addington adding another piece to Stewart's impressive team, this may be a situation where the move works for both operations.
3. From the rear to the front is the story of Jimmie Johnson's season so far -- Jimmie Johnson's season was derailed before it ever started when his car was penalized at Daytona before the very first practice of the season. NASCAR officials levied a $150,000 fine, suspended crew chief Chad Knaus and Ron Malec for six races and docked the team 25 Cup points. Combine that with Johnson's 42nd-place finish after crashing on the second lap of the Daytona 500 and the favorite to win the championship in 2012 was already 70 points behind the leader after one race and arrived at Phoenix with minus-23 points.
Hendrick Motorsports has appealed NASCAR's penalty, meaning Knaus and Malec could remain with the team. That appeal will be heard on Tuesday, but Johnson realizes he has to win races early in the season to get back in the game.
That strategy was hampered when he crashed his primary car on the first lap of Friday's first practice session and had to get out the backup Chevrolet. That meant he had to start at the rear of the 43-car field.
But it became obvious early that Johnson was capable of driving from worst to first. He raced his way to 28th place in the first 10 laps. By Lap 25, he was 24th. Johnson drove all the way to second and was challenging Matt Kenseth for the lead on Lap 83. He was even in the lead on Lap 101.
Johnson finished second, putting him 23rd in points -- 64 points out of the lead.
"With all we went through this weekend I'll take it but man, I want to win," Johnson said. "We were really close. It was a great day in a lot of ways but it just didn't happen."
4. Roush Fenway looks pretty good through three races -- With Matt Kenseth winning the Daytona 500, Roush Fenway Racing had already won the biggest race of the season. But why stop there?
Greg Biffle finished third at Vegas and is the points leader for the first time since 2005. He has a 10-point lead over Kevin Harvick, a 12-point lead over Hamlin and an 18-point lead over Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
"We were not that good at the beginning of the race, but at least we could see the winner up there," Edwards said. "That was fun."
Kenseth was in position to challenge for the win, but got stacked up and pushed into the wall by teammate Edwards, finishing 22nd.
"Carl laid back and got by me three-wide and I got into him a little bit," Kenseth said. "You have to be ready for that. I don't know what I did up there."
These are three extremely competitive teammates and that makes Roush Fenway Racing a deep, talented and scary team in 2012.
5. At least for the start of the day, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was back -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had the look of a winner at the start of the race, zooming to the lead when he passed teammate Kasey Kahne on Lap 1. He kept his Chevrolet out front and, by Lap 73, he led more laps in this race than he did all season (70).
But Earnhardt faded to 10th.
"When we were fast leading the race, the car was really tight and I knew by the end of the race it would be a really, really tight racetrack and we needed to free up the car," Earnhardt said. "The track went past us as far as our handling goes. I didn't keep up with the track enough and that cost us some spots. But we had a good weekend and if we keep doing that every week we will keep on trying."
After finishing second at Daytona, Earnhardt has continued to hang around in the Top 10 and that's important for NASCAR's most popular driver as he attempts to become more competitive in 2012.