Hot, slick conditions suited Stewart
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- One thing about these Monday races after rainouts: they've been good for teams calling their shots at winning.
This time it was the crew chief, not the driver, who called the win the day before.
"It's going to be an interesting race tomorrow," Darian Grubb had said upon leaving the drizzly garage area Sunday evening. "It's going to be hotter, and slick. It'll be fun to go."
He smiled, and I got his drift immediately. His driver, Tony Stewart, thrives on slick racetracks, having been comfortable sideways since his dirt-tracking days.
"It could play right into our hands," Grubb said, beaming as he walked away into the gloom. That was Sunday.
"I love it when it gets hot and slick here," Stewart said. That was Monday, after he won.
"That's exactly what happened," Grubb said. "The track temperatures went way up today."
Stewart's win followed, by exactly one week, Denny Hamlin's fulfillment of his promise to win at Pocono.
"This is my house, right here," Stewart said, referring to his fifth win in the last eight Cup races at Watkins Glen.
But as for hot-weather-driven optimism, "It's that way everywhere," he said. "It's kind of played into our hands for the last 10 years. It seems like this part of the year, when the temperatures are at their highest, we tend to pick up."
Thus the notorious Stewart summer hot streaks over the years. This was his third win since early June.
"I think we can handle the slicker conditions sometimes a little better than some guys around us," Stewart continued. "It's nice to be in that position where you know that when it gets hot, a lot of guys panic when it's gonna get slick, and I get excited when it's gonna get slick."
Marcos Ambrose, who finished second without seriously challenging Stewart at the end, admitted the slick track was just a smidgeon too much for his chassis setup. Ambrose had won the Nationwide race here Saturday.
"If I could take a perfect line and just drive, I could get away with it," Ambrose said. "But the track was slick and we were slightly aggressive on our setup for it. We didn't really get a chance to tune on it either."
Carl Edwards finished third, a career high on a road course, and said the slip-sliding conditions helped him too, with his similar dirt-tracking background to Stewart's.
"The hotter and slicker it gets, the better off we are," Edwards said. "I can only assume Tony's leaning on his dirt experience and all the open-wheel stuff he's done to drive that kind of a racetrack. And I know that I really enjoy it. It's a lot of fun. So it's good for me."
At first, ready as Stewart might have been for a slippery track, his Chevrolet wasn't.
"We made a good prediction but we made the wrong adjustments," Grubb said, "but then we were able to know what it was and back 'er out."
Grubb and crew took care of all the problems on their first pit stop.
"I asked for a lot of changes, and Darian and the guys had an awful lot to do," Stewart said. "To do what they did in that short amount of time was pretty phenomenal."
He'd started 13th, and the comprehensive pit stop dropped him back to 20th. But from there, he worked his way to third in the next 10 laps, and took the lead just after the halfway point.
Then he retook the lead, for keeps, by shooting past Kyle Busch on a double-file restart with 24 laps of the 90 laps remaining. Struggling with an ill-handling car, Busch faded to a fourth-place finish after going off course twice with locked-up brakes.
Already comfortably the points leader coming into The Glen, Stewart piled up his margin here over Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Johnson, who started on the pole but fought a loose race car all afternoon and spun at one point, finished 12th and fell 260 points behind Stewart in the standings.
Gordon was caught up in a horrific-looking wreck in which Sam Hornish Jr. was shoved off the track by Kasey Kahne. Hornish's car bounced back onto the track, right into Gordon's path, and both cars were destroyed by the collision.
Neither driver was seriously injured, but Gordon did say the crash "took a toll on my back again." He has had back problems most of the season, but "Michigan is pretty easy," he said of the physical stress of next week's race.
The wreck caused Gordon's first DNF of the season and dropped him 342 points behind Stewart in the standings.
But Stewart wasn't particularly concerned with his bulging points lead, since it will be reset for the Chase anyway, with drivers seeded in the playoffs according to numbers of regular-season wins.
"I feel like today's 10 points were huge for us," he said of the seeding bonus. "That cuts the deficit we were going to be behind [Mark Martin, who has four wins] at the start of the Chase in half."
"I feel like we're a contender" for a third championship, Stewart said. "I don't feel like we're a dominant contender yet."
Check back with him about Chase time, in September. The weather will be hot till then.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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