Last year, Tony Stewart famously said that his team didn't deserve to be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after the August Michigan race. This year, they may very well be locked into the Chase after the season's first five races and all talk about Smoke's customary slow starts to seasons can be officially put to rest for 2012.
The reigning champion defied conventional wisdom (and his own) on his way to a blistering performance in last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup after a relatively porous regular season in 2011 and he's doing it again in 2012 after grabbing his second win of the season in the rain-affected Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday -- his seventh win in the last 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races dating back to last year's Chase opener at Chicagoland.
Like David Reutimann and Joey Logano, winners of rain-shortened races in 2009 who found themselves in the right place at the right time because of well-timed decisions not to pit, Stewart's win was also because he didn't elect to pit when the only caution came out for rain on lap 123.
But unlike Reutimann and Logano, who were afterthoughts until the rains came, Stewart had arguably the best car of the race's 129 (of 200 scheduled) laps. Smoke, who qualified 10th, started moving through the top 10 after the first handful of laps clicked off, and quickly ran down the Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, who started on the front row. Green flag pit stops stymied Stewart's attempts at the lead through the race's first 85 laps, but he took the lead for good after passing Busch on lap 85.
Hamlin was able to briefly close in on Stewart's bumper a handful of laps before the rains came, but Stewart pulled away as quickly as Hamlin arrived.
However, Hamlin didn't finish in second. When Stewart elected not to pit, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb, Stewart's championship-winning crew chief who was let go from Stewart-Haas before the Chase began, chose to hit pit road, betting that the rains weren't going to last very long. For a split second, it looked that Stewart had snookered Hamlin into pitting, deking to pit road before peeling back onto the track before descending upon the infield grass, but it was a calculated decision for the No. 11 team that ended up being the incorrect one. Hamlin finished 11th.
Hamlin grabbed the final wild-card spot in last year's Chase with one win, while Brad Keselowski snagged the other with three wins. With two wins, Smoke's sitting pretty in fourth in the points standings. At this rate, the wild card sure as heck isn't going to matter.