Dustin Long
Monday April 11th, 2011

In a contrite voice hollowed by another late-race setback, Tony Stewart asked crew chief Darian Grubb for forgiveness.

"I [screwed] us once again,'' Stewart radioed Grubb after Saturday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway. "I'm sorry. I can't help it.''

Grubb responded: "Don't beat yourself up, bud. You got everything you could get. You did an awesome job.''

Then radio silence. There wasn't anything else to say.

For as heated as Stewart can be, his searing eyes and sharp tongue leaving little to the imagination, he can be harshest on himself.

A pit road speeding penalty -- Stewart's first this season -- doomed his chances to win Saturday. Running out of fuel on the final lap, dropping him from third to 12th, seemed only a cruel sucker punch, one of many the two-time series champion has taken this season.

After Grubb put Stewart on a different pit cycle than the field, it appeared as if the ploy could give them their first Sprint Cup win since last October at Auto Club Speedway. The plan fizzled when Stewart was caught speeding during his last stop, on lap 276, of the 334-lap event. NASCAR allows drivers to exceed the 45 mph pit road speed limit by 4.99 mph before issuing a penalty. While Stewart could have gone 49.99 mph without any issues, he was caught going 52.36 mph in the first segment on pit road.

When informed on the radio about the penalty, Stewart didn't contest it. "Sorry, I knew I did it,'' he radioed Grubb.

That penalty was typical of Stewart's up-and-down season.

-- He was second on the final restart in the Daytona 500, but fell back to find a drafting partner, then couldn't challenge for the lead and finished 13th.

-- A two-tire pit stop put him in the lead at Phoenix, but a late caution erased his advantage and allowed cars that had changed four tires to get by after the restart. He finished seventh.

-- He had the strongest car at Las Vegas, but a pit road penalty for equipment out of his pit box -- an air gun hose got caught on his car and was dragged out of the pit stall -- forced the team to alter its strategy. While he finished second, he left disappointed at what could have been a victory.

-- He was third on the final restart at Auto Club Speedway, but his car's handling soured and he finished 13th.

Saturday night's woes only added to a challenging season, even for a driver 10th in the point standings. "When you're in that position and you can't capitalize,'' Stewart said in a statement from his team after the Texas race, "it's pretty frustrating.''

Two-car drafting returns

Trevor Bayne's dramatic Daytona 500 victory in February might have belonged to David Ragan. It was the 25-year-old Ragan, also searching for his first career Sprint Cup victory, who led late in that race. Ragan's dream ended, though, when NASCAR penalized him for changing lanes before the start/finish line on a restart. His infraction moved Bayne to the lead, where he stayed for the final six laps, giving the sport a magical finish.

As the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend, it marks the return of the two-car drafting that was prevalent in the season-opener.

Ragan will review tape of the Daytona 500 to study the new style of drafting at restrictor-plate tracks. He'll watch most of the race, that is. "I'm going to shut it off with a few laps to go,'' he said with a pained smile.

It's understandable. No need to watch someone else win the race he seemed positioned to.

Ragan, though, won't be alone in reliving the Daytona 500 as drivers prepare for this unique style of racing. They again will have to become comfortable with racing blind. The driver pushing the car in front can't see what's ahead of them.

"If you're in front, sometimes you wish you couldn't see where you were going,'' Mark Martin said. "It's pretty tough on you sometimes when you're running up traffic and you have a guy pushing you that doesn't really see that. It's something else.''

Drivers often jumped on the same radio channel to communicate with each other during the Daytona 500. As Bayne pushed Ragan late in that race, Ragan played the role of spotter at times, telling Bayne where cars were in front and if they needed to go high or low.

"The two-car draft, there's a little less room for error,'' said Ragan, who finished sixth at Talladega last spring. "If you mess up one of the two cars, you lose that tandem, it takes you a little bit of time to get hooked back up and get your momentum back.''

Dale Earnhardt Jr., admits he doesn't like this way of racing at Talladega and Daytona. "I'd rather have control of just what I've got to do,, and having to have responsibility for someone else is a little bit more than I care to deal with,'' he said.

Earnhardt also admits he was "disappointed'' that NASCAR reduced the restrictor plate for this weekend. A smaller restrictor plate, Earnhardt has said, makes it easier for the cars to stay together.

"Hopefully, we will do what we need to do in that race to try to be toward the front near the end,'' said Earnhardt, who has finished 12th or better in each of the last six races. "Definitely don't want to have the same issues we had at Daytona, where we had a really good car and didn't take advantage of that and get the finish that we deserved.''

Earnhardt was collected in a late-race accident at Daytona and finished 24th. He also was involved in an accident at Talladega last fall, finishing 39th.

"I'll probably try to take care of my car a little better during the race,'' he said of his plan this weekend. "Try to make better decisions, better judgment calls to have my car there at the end when I need to be able to be around to get a good finish.''

This and that

-- Joe Gibbs Racing, which had suffered a string of engine issues at the start of the season, has now gone two races in a row (Martinsville and Texas) without an engine failure

-- With a break in the action following Talladega, the time off could present an opportunity for some teams to make changes before the series resumes at Richmond.

-- Jeff Gordon has had one top-10 finish (a fifth at Martinsville) in the last five races and led only 40 laps during that stretch (37 at Martinsville).

-- Roush Fenway Racing has combined to lead 45.4 percent of the laps run at the two 1.5-mile tracks this season (Las Vegas and Texas).

-- Trevor Bayne is expected to compete in both the Nationwide and Cup races at Talladega after being treated and released from a Charlotte hospital after a reaction to an apparent insect bite on his left elbow.

-- While not known for his prowess in qualifying, Matt Kenseth has shown marked improvement this year. His average starting position last year was 19.4. His average starting spot this year is 12.0. Kenseth cites that as a key to this season, which sees him third in the points.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

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