The NASCAR season is five races in, and defending champion Tony Stewart is off to a fantastic start. Stewart has won two of the five races thus far, picking up his second win of the season last weekend at the Auto Club 400 in California.
Throughout his long NASCAR career, Stewart has garnered a reputation for having a slow start to the season. In fact, he's earned himself the nickname Mr. Summertime because of his propensity for getting better when the weather gets warmer.
However, this season appears to be different. Stewart hasn't taken very long to get warmed up, winning two races early on in order to cement himself at the top of the standings. Last year, Stewart famously remarked that his team didn't even belong in the Chase for the Sprint Cup due to poor showings at several major races. Ironically, Stewart came on strong down the stretch and ended up winning the championship.
That momentum has apparently continued into the beginning of this year. One big reason is the addition of crew chief Steve Addington, who formerly worked with both Kurt and Kyle Busch. Many fans criticized Stewart for parting ways with Darian Grubb, who directed Stewart to the championship last year. The decision to fire Grubb came before the team made their championship run, but even that couldn't ultimately save Grubb's job. Many Stewart fans worried that Addington wouldn't be able to replicate that success, but thus far it's been working for Stewart.
That was on display Sunday, when the rain began to pour during the Auto Club 400. NASCAR rules allow for a race to be called off if it passes a certain point, and whoever's out in front will end up the winner. That ended up being Stewart, who raced hard throughout the day and finally overtook Kyle Busch on Lap 85. Stewart hung onto the lead as the race went on past the 100-lap mark, the minimum amount of laps needed for the race to be called on account of rain.
The momentous decision, however, was ultimately a call by crew chief Steve Addington. As the rain began to come down, Stewart was faced with the decision - to pit or not to pit. Essentially, it comes down to whether the crew chief thinks the race will continue past the rain. If the race is going to be called off at any moment, then it pays to stay on the track and maintain the front position during the caution laps. But if the rain lets up, those who took the opportunity to pit will have a major advantage over those with less fuel and weaker tires.
Stewart headed toward pit road as if he was intending to pull off, but at the last minute juked out of the way and continued on the track. Commentators pointed out that the move was essentially a fake, and it may have fooled second-placed Denny Hamlin. Although he claimed otherwise after the race, Hamlin followed Stewart to pit road and may have assumed the leader was going to pit, making it safe for him to pit as well. Yet Stewart pulled off at the last second and Hamlin continued on.
That was ultimately the decision that won Stewart the race. Addington guessed right - the rain came down too hard for the race to continue, and because Stewart was in front he was named the winner. Hamlin, meanwhile, fell all the way back to 10th because he decided to pit, losing out on precious points he could have earned for second place.