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NASCAR: Smoke heating up for summer

These days, Tony Stewart’s nickname – Smoke – is as versatile a moniker as Stewart is in a race car.

As if on cue, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion heats up with the weather. Smoke grabbed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win of the season at Dover International Speedway to roar back into the Chase for the Sprint Cup contention. Of his 48 Sprint Cup wins, 23 have come in June, July and August. When there’s summer heat during the NASCAR season, there’s usually Smoke. Only six of his wins have come before June.

And then there’s those run-ins with the media that can leave Smoke, well, hot. Stewart – owner of Stewart-Haas Racing – had to put out fires when rumors of big changes at the racing shop emerged in the media. He’s spent the past few weeks addressing those rumors, including after his win at Dover.

“I mean, if you’re going to put something in there that there’s going to – possibility of somebody moving around – you might want to talk to the guys that write the checks, the guys that work there, and find out the facts before you guys go throwing darts on the dartboard,” Stewart said. “I’ll be honest. It (ticked) me off because it was a distraction to my team, my organization.”

Stewart-Haas Racing struggled early on with Stewart, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick. Stewart, who is 15th in the Chase standings, hopes his recent success is a sign the team is finally getting dialed in.

“As much as (Dover) is a great win and a great victory for us, and a great momentum builder for our organization, I will go back and instead of just focusing on the fact that we won, it’s going to be what happened in Ryan’s day? What happened in Danica’s day?” Stewart said. “You have to play cheerleader. I like looking at cheerleaders. I think they are hot. I’m not much of one, but that’s my role. My job as car owner is to go down there and keep the morale of the guys good.”

Stewart hopes the distractions are behind his team, but Stewart knows he will have to endure some bumps in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. Drivers have described Kentucky Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval as the bumpiest track on the Sprint Cup circuit. That’s not a bad thing. Stewart’s take on the track?

“It’s really, really bumpy, so it’s a struggle to get the car to go through the bumps really well,” Stewart said during his second Cup visit to the speedway in 2012, where he started 22nd and finished 32nd. He started ninth and finished 12th in the inaugural visit in 2011. “It’s bumpier than anywhere that we go as far as mile-and-a-halves are concerned. But that’s what’s fun about it too is that it’s got character and makes us have to work on making it go through the bumps better.”

Kentucky remains one of two tracks Stewart has never won on, joining Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. His win at Dover did extend his streak of seasons with a victory to 14 straight. That’s the longest active streak in Sprint Cup.

“I’m a Southern Indiana guy, so the track is not very far from where I grew up and where I currently live. It’s kind of a home track to us, and that’s kind of the feeling we have going into it,” Stewart said previously of growing up in Columbus, Ind. “You always want to run well at your home tracks. Even though Indy has always been my home track in the past, now having Kentucky Speedway there, it’s as much home to me as Indy. We’re definitely looking forward to it. Plus, it’s an area that has deep racing roots. There’s a lot of dirt track racing roots around Kentucky.”

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