The Subway Fresh Fit 500 in Phoenix was a nice story: a discarded championship crew chief in Darian Grubb helping a disappointed Denny Hamlin find his way back to Victory Lane. It was an uplifting story of two disregarded Virginians teaming up to move forward from a bitter tasting 2011 season.
For the greater NASCAR community, it symbolized the new year. The whole offseason, the talk was about Tony Stewart's historic run to the championship, and that dumped right into the Daytona 500 and the media frenzy that surrounded it...which focused heavily on one of Stewart's drivers, Danica Patrick.
Phoenix allowed all of us to get a fresh perspective and realize that we were officially in the midst of the 2012 season; it was anybody's year to claim the Cup. That was fine for most everyone, except the struggling championship driver that everyone was torching for letting go of his crew chief. On Sunday, "Smoke" reminded all of us that, despite the varying storylines, he is still the reigning Cup champion.
It's Tony Stewart that we're talking about, folks!
This is a man that claimed he would have wrecked his own mother for a championship last season. It's the driver that stated before the Chase that he didn't think he deserved to run for a title, then went on to rally a team that he owns by winning five of 10 races in that Chase. He's the guy that fell to the back twice in last year's final race at Homestead-Miami, but used 118 green flag passes to get to the race lead when it mattered most.
That's Tony Stewart! Lest any of us forgot, he wanted us to remember that this season we're calling him: "The Champ."
Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway provided the perfect opportunity for Stewart to display his dominance. The race's final few restarts featured a field led by Stewart with former five-time consecutive champion Jimmie Johnson hot on his bumper. On the last restart, the two lined up side-by-side and it was the No. 14 that literally, and figuratively, smoked the competition.
Johnson's No. 48 was a great car all weekend and gave Stewart a run for his money, but it was the current champion, not the former one, that took the checkered flag. The win now gives Tony six wins in the last 13 Cup races. That statistic matches him with his former crew chief, Grubb, who many of us (like myself) quipped had "one-upped" Stewart with the No. 11's win at Phoenix the week before.
Nope, Tony Stewart will hear none of that!
He's the champ and he's back for another run in 2012. If any of us want to ignore that fact, by all means, he'd be happy to win another race and remind us that the Sprint Cup Trophy currently resides in the garage of Stewart-Haas Racing.
After a couple early hiccups, Stewart is back to his championship form and has adapted to new crew chief Steve Addington. This means trouble for the rest of the field, and it's very unlikely that this is the last time we'll see Stewart in Victory Lane this season!