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"Smoke" on the water

Tony ‘Smoke’ Stewart charged to the front of the pack with fire in his eyes Sunday afternoon, as the clear Southern California skies quickly turned dark, during the running of the Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway. But when the only caution of the race waved for the first drops of rain, the right call was made by Stewart and his crew chief, Spartanburg’s Steve Addington, which left the competition seeing nothing but Smoke on the Water.

Stewart started the race from ninth spot on the grid and quickly worked his way to the front of the field where he battled with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Using some of his skills learned on dirt tracks across the country, Stewart drove his car deep into turn three to get past first Kevin Harvick followed by Denny Hamlin, and then he worked his way around Kyle Busch while Busch was battling lapped traffic.

Weather radar showed rain moving in to the speedway but first reports showed a small window for the race to be restarted. Several cars pitted including then second place running Hamlin in hopes of the rain passing and the race restarting after the drivers who stayed out pitted. This would have been a great move except for the weather having other plans. But the rain shifted into high gear and the race was declared official after 129 laps, giving Stewart his second victory of the season for him and his Steve Addington led team.

Jimmie Johnson also dodged a bullet as his car suffered an oil leak while the cars circled the track under caution before the red flag forced the cars to park. If the race had restarted, he would have lost as many as 20 laps for his crew to make the repairs. Kurt Busch and the Spartanburg based Phoenix Racing Team picked up their first top ten finish of the year with ninth place.

With three championships on his resume along with race wins at every speedway in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition but two, those being Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Motor Speedway, Stewart is well on his way toward the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But could this season be the biggest of his career?

Looking back over the careers of some of the greatest drivers ever, men like David Pearson, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon, Herb Thomas, Tim Flock, Ned Jarrett, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Bobby Isaac, Jimmie Johnson, Rusty Wallace, and Darrell Waltrip; you will find where these guys piled up ten plus wins in a single season. With two wins this early in the 2012 season backed up with five wins in the final ten races last season, Stewart could ring up double digit wins this year. Yes, over the last 15 points racing in NASCAR Sprint Cup action, Tony Stewart has seven wins.

Jimmie Johnson was the most recent driver to win ten races in a season as he raced toward the championship during the 2007 season. Martinsville will be a great spot for Stewart to win race number three for the season, he won there last fall.

In Nationwide action from California, Joey Logano bolted out front during a late race restart that saw cars racing four and five wide to give Joe Gibbs his eighth consecutive Nationwide Series race win at Fontana. Spartanburg driver Jeremy Clements fought the rough and bumpy track all day to come home in 20th spot.

**The Indy Racing League returned to action at St Petersburg, Florida with Helio Castroneves passing Scott Dixon on the outside in turn one to pick up the first win the new cars being used by the IRL, the DW-12 named in memory of the late Dan Weldon who did most of the testing on these cars before his tragic death last fall at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Castroneves performed his ‘Spiderman fence climb in front of the grandstands on Dan Weldon Way, then he sprinted across the track, climbing the fence again and slapping the sign that bares Weldon’s name. Weldon called St Petersburg his home after moving from England to compete in the IRL.

A few of the cars had electrical system problem, but over all the cars performed well. The Lotus powered teams seem a little behind the Chevrolet and Honda powered rides, but you have to think Lotus will catch up quickly.

For Castroneves and his Penske Racing Team, this was a very sweet win coming off a winless 2011 season. This weekend, the IRL will roll into Birmingham, Alabama with a high tide of momentum as the teams looking to find the right set up for the new cars and engines to battle on this very demanding road course.

***Locally, two tracks will host regional racing series this weekend highlighting the schedule for area race fans. The Southeast Super Truck Series will hold their first ever race at the Anderson Motor Speedway this Friday night.

“This series will race on tracks across the southeast and will provide fans with great competition, and we are very excited that Anderson Motor Speedway will get the season underway for them,” said Anderson Motor Speedway owner Sylvia Porter.

On Saturday night, the Greenville Pickens Speedway will host the NASCAR K&N Pro East Series, for the first of two stops by the series on the historic half mile. The second race will be Labor Day Monday, September 3rd. Among the drivers hoping to find the winners circle this Saturday night will be former Sunoco National Tour Rookie of the Year Bryan Ortiz.

“Greenville Pickens is a great track with a lot of history and I am looking forward to competing there once again. You have to be smart with the throttle to take care of your tires,” Ortiz said on Droppin’ the Hammer prior to the season opener for the East Series at Bristol earlier this month.

****Speaking of Droppin’ the Hammer, the local racing show that airs on ESPN Spartanburg, will broadcast live from the Greer Dragway from 11:00am until 1:00pm this Saturday morning.