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Ahh, it was so great to not just have cup cars out on the track but to have those cup cars to be racing.  No matter what the format of the Shootout or how drivers qualify for the Shootout, I look forward it because to me it signals the beginning of the season, points be damned.

I admit during the off season, while reveling in the fact that my driver won his third championship, I’ve been pondering the momentum SHR may or may not carry into the 2012 season.  Last season was not the best of seasons for Tony Stewart and his #14 Office Depot/ Mobil 1 team.  I don’t think even Tony would argue with me there. Granted there were some near wins during the regular season, like Las Vegas (which broke my heart because I knew how much he wanted to win there after our interview and to see him come oh-so-close only to not win) and the more positive 2nd place in New Hampshire (where he finished second to teammate Ryan Newman).  But despite a few bright spots (that were not winning so how bright could they really be) was frustrating for our driver (and his fans right).  I honestly don’t think I have ever worried as much as I have about Tony making THE CHASE (NASCAR’s version of playoffs/Championship) as I did this last 2011 season.  Luckily he did by the skin of his teeth (whether or not he thought he deserved it).

Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, jokes around during qualifying for the Daytona 500 at Daytona. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images North America).

Then it was like someone flipped a switch. Tony’s CHASE run was nothing short of amazing, with the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 team winning a record 5 out of 10 CHASE races.  And don’t even get me started about that race at Homestead, that amazing race that Tony NEEDED to win. He not only managed to win but passed 118 cars to do it. A race where the team and driver had to overcome damage early in the race, a bad pit stop, a rain delay and you know 42 competitors. A race where it was quite obvious that the driver was….well driving his ass off.  Oh yeah and they happened to take home a CHAMPIONSHIP because if it.  That rocked.

Even though the season ended on a high note, that doesn’t mean that the momentum will follow through and don’t think that doesn’t worry me.  SHR underwent some fairly major changes at the end of the season and during the off season.  There were sponsor additions (Outback and Quicken Loans) for Ryan Newman’s car. A new crew chief, Steve Addington,  was hired for Tony Stewart, after letting go Darian Grubb. The long empty Director of Competition position was filled by Greg Zipadelli (big surprise there right?) after being vacant most of last season.  And the BIGGEST change of all, the addition of a third, albeit part-time team with the #10 of Danica Patrick.  Yes, technically the car is fielded by TBR but we all know that was done to guarantee Danica a start in the 500 without having to sacrifice Tony or Ryan’s owner points.  So that adds a new crew (maybe- Stewart-Haas has a third pit crew they offered out to other teams) and a new quasi-teammate to the mix.  That is a whole lot of change for an organization. Change that may (or hopefully may NOT) hinder momentum because there are new people getting use to an existing organization and an organization getting use to new people.

Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, sits in his car during practice for the Daytona 500 at Daytona. (Picture Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

That being said, I am VERY pleased with what i saw at the Shootout momentum wise.  Considering that Tony’s car had signifigant damage during practice and the team was able to repair the car and get it to point where he was obviously very competive, it is exciting to witness. Yeah, Tony didn’t win but he came darn close.  Even Kyle Busch mentioned during his postrace that he hooked up with Tony because he knew that the 14 was fast.  So as a fan of SHR and in particular Tony Stewart, I am definitely liking what I am seeing from my team so far this very young season.

Now, as far as the 500 on Sunday? It’s going to be a crazy race.  NASCAR worked hard during the off season to break up the tandem drafting and judging by the Shootout, it worked.  The return of “pack” racing is something I find crazy stressful to watch at the superspeedways.  Packs mean there is less room to correct for an “oopsie” with out hitting someone else.  Recovery space is limited.  When you do make a mistake (and someone always does- it’s human nature) there is a very good chance that multiple cars will be involved, thus a better chance of a more “spectacular” crashes. And when I say “spectacular” I really mean “scary as hell, oh god please let driver x by okay” kind of crashes.  So there is that to worry about.

On the plus side, Tony WAS strong in the shootout. Hopefully he will be equally strong in his Duel race.  And for those who like numbers- this is Tony Stewart’s 14th Daytona 500.  I think it’s time for him to finally win one!  I know Tony must want that jewel in his crown- who wouldn’t.

So…#GoTonyTo and as always #ImWithSmoke!

Also- be sure to check out our new “Misty’s Mazin’ Moment” column- this week she tackles The Shootout. And her Misty’s Messed her unMentionables moment of the Shootout!

No surprise here- Jeff Gordon’s crash late in the Shootout nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. I am quite sure I didn’t breathe from the time he started rolling til he was out and standing. Even then, I was left wondering if I would have the stomach to sit through 500 miles next weekend. To paraphrase Jeff Gordon’s tweet the morning after, “Thankful for 4 safe race cars.”

These kind of moments serve to remind us all exactly what kind of risk all the drivers take each time they strap in and let’s all pray for a safe and fun season.

And on a final gratuitous fan note: Here’s to all the craziness getting out of the way for the 24 and to a winning, safe champion season! ;)

Kyle Busch’s “spin-catch-spin catch” move was by far the most amazing moment of the race for me. Love him or hate him, that was some great driving and certainly got my attention. The fact that he later went on to win the Shootout was just icing on this moment in the race.

Hey Smoke fans in the Daytona Beach area- I have some great news for you! Tony Stewart is scheduled to greet fans and sign autographs at the local Office Depot store in Daytona Beach, Florida on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 beginning at 3:30pm local time.

The store is located at: 1560 South Nova Road in Daytona.

As always, wristbands are required and may be obtained on a first-come, first-served basis at the store beginning at 8 a.m. local time on the day of the event only.  There are only 600 wristbands available. One wristband per person, one autograph per wrist band and you must be in line no later than 4:30pm receive an autograph.

Office Depot Racing is giving FIVE lucky fans the chance to win a trip to Las the race in LAS VEGAS on March 11th, 2012!

Visit the Office Depot Racing I’m With Smoke website and enter in to win in the bar on the right. Five winners will receive: 2 tickets to the March 11th race (I will be there won’t you?), $750 dollars, $50 Office Depot gift card, and a 1:24 Autographed Diecast of the #14 Office Depot Chevy!

You can’t win if you don’t enter but you must enter by 2.23.2012, 11:59PM ET! Good luck!!

I just wanted to share this video that has some great behind the scenes banter from Tony’s appearance (TOMORROW Feb 14th on ABC- be sure to check your local listings) on Last Man Standing with actor Tim Allen:

Also- Tim Allen has been named the Grand Marshall of the Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas. I couldn’t THINK of a better grand marshall since Tim Allen’s a self professed “car guy” and his iconic role on Home Improvement was Tim “the Toolman” Taylor! A perfect fit if you ask me!

Have you set your DVR to record LAST MAN STANDING on February 14th to catch THREE TIME Spring up champion Tony Stewart? I have. Here’s a preview for your viewing pleasure:

I hope the whole episode is as funny as the preview!

Tomorrow is February! That means that Daytona is right around the corner! I, personally, can’t wait. The off season always seems extremely long to me (despite the fact that it is pretty much the shortest off season of any sport) and it drags on to me. I am ready to saddle up and watch. I am ready to be out at the track…taking in the sights, sounds and smells. I AM READY.

One thing I am going to admit to you is that as much as I love and look forward to the beginning of the season- there is also the struggle of having to pick out new driver/numbers/crew chiefs etc. There is always having to get use to all the new dynamics out there on top of the new nuances of things like the EFI and how that will effect the cars on the track and whatnot.  Plus did I mention the new numbers/new sponsors thing that ALWAYS throws me for a loop?

Stewart Haas Racing is not immune to changes- especially this season. Probably one of the most profound changes, everyone knows about. That is that Steve Addington will be Tony’s new crew chief this season. It’s not necessarily a change that I understand the reasoning behind but then again I am not a behind the scenes person so I am sure there is a reason for it. Right?

SHR was also able to finally fill the long empty (since May of 2011 if I am not mistaken) Director of Competition position with Greg Zipadelli. This does not surprise me in the least. I had a feeling back when Tony started Stewart-Haas Racing that Greg would end up over at SHR eventually in some capacity. It also seemed to me that there was increasing friction between Joey Logano and Greg Zipadelli towards the end of last season so it seemed like a natural move for everybody involved.

Stewart-Haas Racing also announced at the end of last season that Danica Patrick would be running the 10 car for 10 races (ha 10 for 10) in the cup series under the Stewart-Haas racing banner. But wait? Now it sounds like technically Danica will be running the 10 car for TBR (Tommy Baldwin Racing) and David Ruetimann will be running the rest of the season in the 10 car. Whot? I thought the 10 car was a SHR car? I am unclear as to what exactly this means…but the way I understand it (and this is just me…so it might NOT actually be happening this way): TBR is in a “partnership” with SHR in that SHR will provide the 10 car and the 10 crew chief (Greg Zipadelli) to TBR who will provide the 10 car with their owner points so that Danica is guarenteed to make it into the Daytona 500 without Tony having to give her his points and resting on his Championship provisional to get it.  When Danica isn’t in the 10 car, the car will be totally a TBR car and Ruitimann will have his own (a different) crew chief.  It kind of makes sense because if Tony were to give Danica his points and take the championship provisional, he wouldn’t be locked in the top 35 for the first five races.  That would be wasted on Danica who isn’t running a full schedule.  All I know is that the PR folks in charge of the Stewart-Haas Racing twitter account tells us that it’s a “win-win” for everyone. So there you have it. It’s “Winwin” just deal with it?!  (I am still kind of unclear if this means Danica is still a Stewart-Haas Racing driver).

Other changes including the adding of Quicken Loans and Aspen Dental to the list of sponsors signing up to sponsor Ryan Newman.  Add that to the Outback that was added in Phoenix (I was in the media center for the announcement).

So…what are Stewart-Haas’s chances of fielding two cars in the chase again next season? I don’t know.  The die-hard fan in me wants Tony to go out there and take names next season and win another championship.  GO TONY GO! I’M WITH SMOKE! You know the drill.  I always want Tony to win EVERY race- every single one.  I hope that Tony and team always go out there with that same attitude- the same one we saw at Homestead-Miami.  But we do have to take into consideration there are changes within the organization- the least of which means that Tony will have a new crew chief to build a rapport with.  Plus there is the third car for 10 races (or is there? I am still kind of confused…is it really considered a Stewart-Haas Racing team?).  So there is a 3 car dynamic for nearly a third of the races this coming season.  Can I just say though that I really REALLY want Tony to go out there and get that Daytona 500 win finally? Because I so do!

And just to add this picture from last month from Stewart-Haas Racing Twitter’s account that CRACKS me up:

This photo cracks me up! Photo Credit: Stewart-Haas Racing Twitter Account

Which reminds me- be sure to watch for Tony to be on The Last Man Standing with Tim Allen- it should air sometime around Speed Weeks (I think it comes on Valentines Day- but I will update when I know for sure).

I’m With Tony! Are you?  Let’s go 2012!