FONTANA, Calif. — A few hours after putting his footprints and signature in drying concrete on Fontana’s walk of fame, Tony Stewart hopped on his jet with Kyle Larson and flew 400 miles north to Stockton, Calif., where Larson beat him in a dirt-track race.
Just a typical Friday for Stewart — and just another indication he’s not worried about Stewart-Haas Racing’s slow start heading into Sunday’s fifth race of the NASCAR season.
Wrecks, bad tires and simply unfortunate breaks have combined to keep Stewart way down in 24th place in the overall points standings next to the three-time Sprint Cup series champion’s similarly placed teammates, Ryan Newman (23rd) and rookie Danica Patrick (28th). Stewart isn’t exactly worried about it just yet, but it’s clear Smoke would love to figure out the new Gen-6 car in time to celebrate a third win in four years at Fontana heading into NASCAR’s off week.
“Everybody wants an answer that nobody has an answer to right now,” said Stewart, who starts eighth Sunday. “Every track that we’re going to is a learning deal right now. You’re going to go through a lot of races before we all figure out what the car likes and dislikes.”
Stewart-Haas could use a bit of the same good fortune that made Stewart the defending champion on this sunbaked, 2-mile course, where he won a rain-shortened race last year. There’s no chance of rain in sunny Southern California this weekend, and Stewart sounds confident his team’s forecast will improve soon.
“It’s just early in the year,” said Stewart, who lost tire pressure and spun early last week at Bristol. “If all of us had finished all the races and we’re back there because we’ve been running bad, that would be one thing. We’ve all had races that we’ve crashed out of. Four races into a season, that’s 25 per cent of your points total. Just having one of those (crashes) is enough to mess up the point standings right now.”
Stewart is among the busiest drivers, helping his goal to race 100 times this year with his trip to Stockton’s new dirt track and its 10,000-plus fans. But the hottest driver is Kasey Kahne, who won at Bristol last week after finishing second in Las Vegas two weeks ago.
After arriving at this track in 2012 in the midst of a nasty slump during his debut season with Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne was comfortable enough this year to spend one night getting a tattoo of his grandfathers’ initials on his forearm.
Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson is a five-time winner at NASCAR’s closest track to his native El Cajon, Calif., and he’s a fan favourite in San Bernardino County. Denny Hamlin won the pole Friday, and Brad Keselowski will chase his fifth straight top-five finish to start his series title defence from the back after engine trouble.
Keselowski isn’t writing off his chances to contend after such a strong start to the season, albeit with no victories yet.
“It’s pretty early with this Gen-6 car, and so I don’t think anyone really knows who the favourite is to beat,” said Keselowski, who could tie Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s 1995 record of five straight top-fives to start a title defence. “I know we might have the points lead, but I think it’s too early to label any one team ahead or behind.”
Although the Fontana track isn’t NASCAR’s newest or fanciest, drivers typically enjoy its aging asphalt with the potential for five-wide racing. They also realize the importance of putting on an entertaining show in the circuit’s closest race to Los Angeles and the Hollywood publicity NASCAR craves.
“It’s always a lot of fun when it widens out on the race _ running high, running low, duking and driving,” Clint Bowyer said. “For the size of this race track, we always enjoy ourselves pretty well out there.”
But while Stewart has frequently done well at Fontana, Patrick doesn’t appear likely to challenge after struggling in qualifying and practice.
“I’m more comfortable at high-grip tracks, so I don’t know if this is necessarily something that suits my style as much,” she said. “Definitely, there’s a lot of room to move around if you’re not comfortable and try and find a place to get there.”