Philadelphia, PA – It's early in the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season and "Smoke" is already on fire.
For Tony Stewart to win at this juncture of the season is rare, but after winning five of the last 10 races en route to his third series championship last year, it's not really a surprise to see him in victory lane this early in the year.
After winning Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400, Stewart can now scratch off Las Vegas Motor Speedway from his list of racetracks where he has yet to win a race on the current Sprint Cup schedule.
"To finally check this off the list, that's what makes (Sunday) so special, not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one," he said.
Just Darlington and Kentucky remain on his list. The series ran at Kentucky last year, with Kyle Busch winning that event.
Stewart put on a dominating performance in the second half of the 400-mile race Las Vegas, leading 127 of the last 134 laps. But his win didn't come with ease, thanks in part to four late-race cautions, including the final one that set up a four-lap shootout to the finish.
During the last round of stops under caution, Stewart came out of the pits first, but Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski remained on the track and held the top-two running positions when the race resumed with 34 laps to go. Stewart made a bold pass for the lead by dipping below Bowyer and Keselowski just after the restart.
"It was nice to be on the inside, and we had a lot of real estate down there," Stewart said. "We almost got too good a restart, because I got such a good run on Brad. Knowing we can't pull out of line until we cross the start/finish line, I almost got to him too quick. If we would have got there a foot earlier, I was going to have to check up, and I probably wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to get underneath him like that."
Stewart then held off five-time series champion and four-time Las Vegas race winner Jimmie Johnson after a pair of restarts within the final 10 laps. He beat Johnson to finish line by a half second. His first Las Vegas win came in his 14th attempt there.
The victory made up for Stewart's misfortune last week at Phoenix. Stewart experienced an issue with the electronic fuel injection in his car, which ultimately cost him a chance to win there.
Stewart also was able to erase his bad memories from last year's race at Las Vegas. Despite leading 163 of 267 laps, Stewart was penalized for an air wrench that escaped his pit stall during a mid-race round of stops. Shortly after, he and then-crew chief Darian Grubb opted for a four-tire change, while the other front-runners took just two tires. He wound up finishing second to Carl Edwards.
"It's hard when you go to a track one time a year and you lose it like we did last year," Stewart said. "We had to wait 365 days to come back and have a shot at it again. I wouldn't have probably been in such a bad mood on the airplane last year if I would have known one year we would be sitting here like this."
New crew chief Steve Addington deserved a lot of credit for the win. He also earned a great deal of respect from his driver and team owner Stewart.
"It's a big relief to know you're the difference in the race team right now," Addington said. "Everybody has been awesome. Nobody put the pressure on me except myself. I really didn't realize how much I'd put on myself going to work for the championship team the very next year. It's been a lot of pressure. I think that even when Tony feels good about the car, I'm still questioning. He's just like, 'Relax, dude, it's going to be all right.'"
Just days after winning the Sprint Cup title, Grubb was out at Stewart-Haas Racing, while Stewart hired Addington to replace him. Addington had served as Kurt Busch's crew chief at Penske Racing from 2010-11.
Grubb moved over to Joe Gibbs Racing to guide Denny Hamlin's efforts this season. Those two clicked immediately, with Hamlin winning at Phoenix.
"I was really happy for Darian last week to get that win," Stewart said. "I know it was a tough scenario for us to part ways at the end of the year. It was neat to see Denny and him get a win last week. It's neat to see Steve and me get a win this week ... I'm glad both teams have come out strong like this."
With the win, Stewart moved from 15th to seventh in the point standings.