Tony Stewart may have had less than a sizzling regular season, but now that things have gotten serious, "Smoke" is on fire.
Although the No. 14 Chevy driver could not find victory lane in the first 26 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, he has been unbeatable so far in the Chase for the Cup that decides the season champion.
Stewart made it two-for-two on Sunday as he cruised past a sputtering Clint Bowyer with less than three laps to go and sprinted to the finish to win the Sylvania 300 in Loudon, N.H.
Not bad for a guy who said it might be a waste for him to have a Chase spot before NASCAR's 10-race championship showdown began a week ago in Chicago.
"The potential's been there all year — you wonder when the bad luck string is going to stop," said the two-time champion.
"The reality of it is you look at guys that are in the back half of the Chase right now, they're guys that a lot of people expected to be in the top five, top three in the points right now. It shows that one or two bad days can put you in a bad spot pretty quick."
Stewart was given the nickname "Smoke" during his U. S. Auto Club dirt track days where his driving style found his right rear tire spinning and smoking coming off corners.
As things stand now, Smoke is the early driver to beat in the Chase, leading the standings by seven points over Kevin Harvick. Brad Keselowski is 11 back in third. Drivers get 47 points for winning a race. Reigning five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is 29 adrift in 10th.
Although he came into the Chase as a dark horse, the racing gods owed Stewart and decided to pay him back in New Hampshire. A year ago, he was leading the same race only to run out of fuel on the final lap and watch Bowyer take the win. This year, turnabout was fair play as Stewart benefited from Bowyer's misfortune.
With the Chase heading to Delaware's Dover International Speedway on Sunday, Stewart has little time to think about his good luck. Besides, he's not about to sit around and be content with his recent success.
"As much as we want to sit here and beat our chest and be proud of what we've done, and we are proud of what we've done these first two weeks, we got eight hard weeks to go here," Stewart said.
"The celebrating isn't going to last long. We got a lot of work to do. I'm proud of our group. I'm confident that we've got a group of guys that are very, very focused right now."
One driver who may already be looking to 2012 is Denny Hamlin, who ran out of gas with three laps left and finished 29th in Loudon. With a dismal 31st in the Chase opener, the result put him 66 points behind Stewart which means Hamlin essentially needs a miracle to get back into the championship hunt.
Lewis Hamilton in the middle of trouble again
Another Formula One race is in the books and someone is angry with McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton — again.
This time it was Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, who seethed following the Singapore Grand Prix after Hamilton hit the right rear of his car causing a puncture that saw him tumble down the leaderboard and never recover. The McLaren driver served a drive thru penalty for his misconduct.
Massa called for the stewards to crackdown on the British driver until he learns a lesson and stops being aggressive. Now, there might be a long list of Hamilton transgressions in 2011, but trying to rid the 2008 world champion of his aggressive driving style would be a mistake for him and for the sport.
Fans must remember that the same take-no-prisoners approach that got Hamilton in trouble in Singapore also saw him put in a spectacular performance that lifted him from 19th after his penalty to fifth at the finish.
While Hamilton needs to go with the style that brings him success, he also seems to have spent 2011 pushing the dial into overdrive, which is when the trouble starts. If he were a hockey player, commentators might suggest he's holding the stick too tight trying to make things happen.
Simply put, Hamilton is showing the signs of being frustrated by the way the 2011 season has gone.
It's obvious that the Red Bull car driven by soon-to-be-crowned 2011 champion Sebastian Vettel remains untouchable this year, and Hamilton simply isn't satisfied with eating the scraps left on the table by the high flying German. Vettel owns the track on most weekends, winning nine times in 14 starts in 2011, with Hamilton and teammate Jenson Button picking up a pair of victories each. The only other winner in 2011 is Ferrari's Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton is also facing a situation where his teammate seems to be gaining the upper hand as the year progresses, something he hasn't experienced since graduating to F1 in 2007. While Hamilton has crossed the finish line ahead of Button in eight of 14 races this year, the 2009 world champion has outpaced his teammate in the last four with a win, two seconds, and a third. The strong second half has pushed Button into second overall in points with 185, 17 ahead of Hamilton who is fifth. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
On the other hand, it's also hard sometimes to remember that Hamilton is only 26 and still maturing as a racing driver despite the world championship already under his belt. So, when he gets caught out at a start of a race like he did in Singapore and goes from fourth on the grid to eighth in one corner, the racing instinct that makes him want desperately to be at the front takes over and he pushes a bit too hard. When that happens, trouble inevitably follows.
There's no doubt that when Hamilton is on his game, he's difficult to beat; when he starts to stare too hard at the back of the car in front, impatience rules.
Bottom line here is that his wildly experienced team should recognize when the conditions create a situation where Hamilton might head for trouble and act quickly to help him see the bigger picture before something goes wrong.
Yes, it is spelled Vettel, but...
All Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, 24, needs is a single point in the final five F1 races this year to become the sport's youngest double world champion. The supremely talented German has simply destroyed the field this year, taking 11 poles and nine victories in 14 starts so far.
Along the way, commentators from far and wide have destroyed the pronunciation of his name, too. While it may be spelled with a "V," the German name is pronounced as if it started with an "F" and rhymed with mettle.
Oddly, on the BBC broadcast on Sunday, Martin Brundle and David Coulthard, who is one of the worst offenders in the Vettel mispronunciation sweepstakes, discussed this very fact and explained in detail how Vettel's name should be said — and then went right back to using the wrong pronunciation.
Seriously folks, the kid has accomplished so many things in his short career, maybe it's about time someone gets his name right.