CUP: Stewart Shows Unusual Early-Season Strength

After Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb teamed for a win in their second race out of the gate last week at Phoenix, there were renewed murmurings about Tony Stewart’s decision to release Grubb as his team’s crew chief last year.

Did Stewart make a wise move by booting Grubb in favor of Steve Addington?

Looks like his choice might be OK.

Stewart and Addington scored in only their third race together Sunday at Las Vegas, putting together an impressive performance and absolutely slamming the door on all late-race challenges.

Addington put Stewart in position to score his first victory at Las Vegas, giving the veteran driver a win at every current Sprint Cup track except Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which will host only its second event this year).

With one more win, his 46th, Stewart will tie two-time Cup champion Buck Baker for 14th on the all-time victory list.

Stewart led the most laps Sunday but still found himself in position to face late-race challenges by Jimmie Johnson. On every restart, Stewart showed the strength to stay out front, befuddling some in the garage.

“It just seemed like every time the caution was out, we started building the lead back up and started pulling away,” Stewart said. “The trend we were getting every time the caution came out, we’re starting to get to where we can relax, run our rhythm, not have guys pressure us on entry, back my corner up and do what I wanted to do.

“When the caution came out, it seemed like for the first three laps, those guys were able to put a little pressure on us and were probably quicker than us. It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again. As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again.

“It was a matter of getting a good restart, hitting our marks for a couple laps, and going on. But every time the caution came out, you cringed, knowing you were giving them another opportunity to take a shot. Seemed like everybody got their turn at it. Just a different person on each restart that we had to hold off.

“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It’s very nerve-wracking. But that was the great thing about our race car. It would go from there to turn one, and it was just awesome.”

The win marked the earliest calendar victory-lane visit for Stewart, who typically performs better in the second half of seasons.

After Stewart won the championship last season despite finishing the year with Grubb in lame-duck status, Addington stepped into a pressure situation this year.

“We win the championship, and it’s hard to come into a team after they’ve won a championship,” Stewart said. “I don’t know that there are too many guys other than a guy like Steve Addington who could step into a role and succeed Darian Grubb and do the job he’s doing. Really proud of Steve. Really proud of our guys.

“I mean, it’s the same guys that we had last year, just throwing in a little bit different leadership. We had a great leader with Darian, and I miss him, but I’m proud of our new leader, Steve.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.