Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tony Stewart wins Sprint All-Star Race

It may not have been a points-paying race, but that didn't make Tony Stewart's first win as an owner-driver Saturday night in the Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway any less important. There's the $1 million to consider, but there's also the reality that Stewart-Haas Racing is for real, and Stewart -- new team and all -- is a legitimate title threat.

Stewart worked his way past Matt Kenseth with two laps left in the final 10-lap segment, the culmination of a wild shootout which saw leader Jeff Gordon get a bad restart and come out of the losing end of a three-wide battle with Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch. Jimmie Johnson, who led all of the first 50-lap segment, also had his issues, spinning out on the backstretch en route to a 13th-place finish.

But for Stewart, Saturday night's win could propel him to a win this weekend in one of the sport's crown jewels, the Coca-Cola 600 (formerly known as the World 600, right next to the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 in terms of history in NASCAR). Stewart probably should've won the race last year -- leading with two to go before a tire went flat and handed the win to Kasey Kahne -- but this year, pulling that No. 14 into Victory Lane again would be special.

Not just because it would make Stewart the first owner-driver since Ricky Rudd in 1998 to win a Sprint Cup points race ... it would further solidify Stewart as a title contender (he's always been a strong driver in the summer months) and validates his decision to leave the team he won two championships with to start his own operation.

The turnaround of that organization is nothing short of astounding. That two-car program, with Scott Riggs and Johnny Sauter last year, struggled to stay in the Top 35 in owner points and had a hard time just making races. With Stewart and Newman behind the wheels, this program is running in the top 10 every week and challenging for wins.

So what's the difference? It can't be the equipment; sure, Stewart receives engines, cars and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, but that was also the case when the team struggled under the banner of Haas-CNC Racing. The drivers probably have a lot to do with it -- no disrespect to Riggs and Sauter, but Stewart is a two-time Sprint Cup champion and Newman has countless poles and 13 career wins, including the 2008 Daytona 500.

But the biggest change, perhaps, is in the people. Stewart brought in several high-profile people from the garage area to work for him, including crew chiefs Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson. Bobby Hutchens as Director of Competition was also a big pick-up, and Stewart made sure not to let his team's association with Rick Hendrick run stale, the way it had when the team was still Haas-CNC.

Stewart learned in his years with Joe Gibbs Racing that success often comes from having the right people on board. People, Gibbs thought, were just as important as good equipment, if not more so. That philosophy, and Stewart's ability to attract major sponsorship in the way of Office Depot, the U.S. Army, Old Spice and Burger King, have contributed to his team's strong season thus far.

Stewart's win Saturday night was just the first of many to come for Stewart-Haas.

Also, a quick shoutout to Sam Hornish Jr., who raced his way into the Sprint All-Star Race by winning the Sprint Showdown. Hornish finished second in the event last year to earn a spot in the big race, and this year he won the preliminary event. Hornish has shown marked improvement so far this season, picking up his first two career Top-10 finishes, and Saturday's win is but another step in learning how to race stock cars.

Winning the Sprint Showdown did wonders for A.J. Allmendinger last season -- improved confidence can be a wonderful thing -- and I expect Hornish's win to give him a similar boost as the season stretches on into the summer.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint All-Star Race
1. Tony Stewart
2. Matt Kenseth
3. Kurt Busch
4. Denny Hamlin
5. Carl Edwards
6. Mark Martin
7. Kyle Busch
8. Joey Logano
9. Jamie McMurray
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
11. Bobby Labonte
12. Clint Bowyer
13. Jimmie Johnson
14. Kasey Kahne
15. Kevin Harvick
16. Sam Hornish Jr.
17. Brad Keselowski
18. Ryan Newman
19. Jeff Gordon
20. Jeff Burton
21. Greg Biffle

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Showdown
1. Sam Hornish Jr.
2. Jamie McMurray
3. David Stremme
4. David Reutimann
5. Joey Logano*
6. Martin Truex Jr.
7. A.J. Allmendinger
8. David Ragan
9. Robby Gordon
10. Marcos Ambrose
11. Dave Blaney
12. Juan Pablo Montoya
13. Casey Mears
14. Michael Waltrip
15. David Gilliland
16. Bill Elliott
17. Paul Menard
18. Reed Sorenson
19. Scott Speed
20. Joe Nemechek
21. Max Papis
22. J.J. Yeley
23. Dexter Bean
24. Tony Raines
25. Scott Riggs
26. Mike Wallace
27. Todd Bodine
28. Derrick Cope
29. Mike Garvey
30. David Starr
31. Norm Benning
32. Kirk Shelmerdine
33. Elliott Sadler
34. Brian Vickers
35. Carl Long

*transferred to All-Star Race via fan vote.

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