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ThatsRacin.com


Race Rewind: Looking back at the Kobalt Tools 400

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012

Observations

• Everybody associated with Tony Stewart's remarkable championship run last season has now revisited Victory Lane. And that shouldn't be a surprise. Denny Hamlin won at Phoenix with crew chief Darian Grubb, who won five Chase races and the season finale with Stewart last year. Now, the very next week, Stewart is back in Victory Lane, winning his first race with crew Steve Addington, who joined him in the off-season.

• The first 73 laps of the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the class of the field, leading 70 of them. He not only led them, he was totally in a class by himself. Earnhardt's performance was akin to several in the middle of the season last year when he appeared ready to break his winless streak any week. Earnhardt and his team couldn't quit keep up in the second half of the race, but they certainly appear on the right track.

• It wasn't a good weekend for Las Vegas natives, at least in the Cup series race. The three Las Vegas natives in the race Sunday all had problems. Brendan Gaughan hit the wall early in the race and finished 34th. Kyle Busch spun in oil dropped when Travis Kvapil's engine blew up on Lap 127. Kurt Busch spun and wrecked on Lap 255 while he was still in position for a good finish.

Notes

New car, no teams (for now): Dodge took the cover off its new model Dodge Charger which it will use in the 2013 Sprint Cup season with much fanfare Sunday at Las Vegas. As expected, the car looks very similar to its production model brother - which has been the goal for the manufacturers and NASCAR.

What Dodge doesn't have at the moment, is a Cup team to drive it. Penske Racing, which runs Dodges, recently announced it was moving to Ford next season.

"Based on the way our phone has been ringing, I'm not too concerned," said Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of SRT Brand and Motorsports. "It's been a pretty positive thing and with every storm there's a sunny day in there. It was unexpected, but we're ready for it."

New points leader: Greg Biffle doesn't have any wins yet this season, but his remarkable consistency - he's finished third in each of the first three races - leaves him as the Cup series points leader.

"It's certainly started off to be a good season so far," Biffle said. "Just plain and simply, Matt Pucia is the reason why we're running and competing and finishing where we are.

"This team needed leadership. He was willing to step up and take the task on. He's done a fantastic job so far."

Hamlin struggled all day: One week after earning his first win of the 2012 season, Denny Hamlin had an almost completely opposite performance at Las Vegas.

Hamlin struggled from the start and several times fell a lap down. He ended up able to remain on the lead lap and finished 20th - a far better finish than what he appeared headed for in the early-going.

"Our car, we didn't have very much speed in it where we got here," Hamlin said. "Usually, we can make up a little bit in a race - we just stayed two-, three-tenths (of a second) off pretty much all day."

Earnhardt won the first half: Starting fourth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 70 laps of the first 73 laps, quickly surpassing his entire laps-led total of the 2011 season (52).

After pitting for four tires while many others pit for two, Earnhardt got mired back in the field until making his way back into the Top 10 late in the race. He ended up 10th.

"Hopefully we can keep bringing cars like that to the race track and we will get some opportunities to win," he said. "We had good speed, led some laps. This is a tough series. When you get back in traffic, it gets very competitive. "

3 keys to victory

1. Tony Stewart qualified well (seventh) and remained up front most of the race with no hiccups on pit road. That may sound standard, but in a race where track position meant everything, it was necessary for the victory.

2. On the restart on Lap 234, Stewart lined up third behind Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski. He quickly dived to the track apron and passed both for the lead within half a lap. The move was eerily similar to several he made in last season's race at Homestead, Fla.

3. Kurt Busch's wreck on lap 255 bunched the field one last time. Even lined up side-by-side with Stewart on the restart, Jimmie Johnson could make little headway against him in the final four laps.

Turning point

Every restart was a chance for Stewart's rivals to catch him or attempt a pass. Yet each time he drove away virtually unchallenged.

Things would have been different if ...

Had Dale Earnhardt Jr. taken two tires on his pit stop on Lap 75 like most of the rest of the leaders instead of four, would we be taking about the end of his winless streak?

Next race

Food City 500

Where: Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

TV: Fox

Radio: Performance Racing Network

Last year's winner: Kyle Busch

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