Winning Monday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway to open the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was both redemptive and a major achievement for Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet team.
It gave Stewart a huge jump in the points – ninth to second, seven points behind leader Kevin Harvick – as he pursues a third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. The victory preserved “Smoke’s” record of at least one win in each of the 13 seasons as a driver in NASCAR’s premier series. And, finally, his 40th win at 40 years of age matched Mark Martin for 16th on NASCAR’s all-time victory list.
Stewart won the Mobil 1 Driver of the Race Award while crew chief Darian Grubb received the Moog Chassis Parts Problem Solver Award awarded to the crew chief that improves the most from the first half of the race to the second utilizing the 40 best lap times. “I think we gained five positions the first run, ten positions the second run. After that it was steadily marching forward from there,” said Grubb.
Among Grubb’s over the wall crew is Mike Casto, the No. 14 Chevrolet’s jack man and engineer, an employee before Haas CNC Racing became Stewart-Haas Racing. Casto recalls taking a few deep breaths when Stewart took over. “You were afraid to screw up because it was Tony Stewart,” said Casto.
Casto, a short-time coal miner, U.S. Navy sonar operator and journeyman collegiate tight end, found that Stewart was among the most loyal drivers with whom he’d worked. “If we have a bad stop, he doesn’t get on the radio [blaming the crew],” said Casto. “Working with Tony, I enjoy it a lot. You know he’ll get out of it whatever the car has and you know you can win any race.”
The Proctor, W.V. native has seen more than his share of the world in his 33 years. As a teen, he worked alongside his coal miner father as what he euphemistically called an “intern.” At 17, Casto joined the U.S. Navy for a four-year tour of duty, serving in the first Gulf War aboard an Aegis Class destroyer from which he watched Tomahawk missiles launched toward targets in Iraq.
Those experiences convinced Casto that higher education was where he wanted to go. “My dad and a lot of others in West Virginia didn’t have a choice,” he said. “I wanted to have choices.”
Casto, a journeyman tight end at Glanville State College under coach Rich Rodriguez, later earned an engineering degree from West Virginia University Institute of Technology and in 2002 graduated from the NASCAR Technical Institute hopeful of landing fulltime employment in racing.
He broke in as a chassis specialist with Bobby Dotter’s Green Light Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series where his athletic skills made him a natural candidate to go over the wall with the short-staffed team. “They only had so many guys so you had to learn to do everything,” said Casto. He’s been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2006.
Casto calls the jack position one of the more demanding positions on the crew since he effectively controls the stop. “When you’ve done it so much, sometimes you can’t even remember exactly what you did,” he said. “It feels like your mind slows down.”
He believes athletes and military veterans are the perfect candidates for over-the-wall positions. “They are prepared to handle pressure along with screaming, yelling in your face,” said Casto.
Race No. 2 in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The Sylvania 300 can be seen live on ESPN at 2 p.m. EDT.
Official winners of this week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Prize Money & Decal Program special awards include:
· AMERICAN ETHANOL GREEN FLAG RESTART: Kurt Busch
· COORS LIGHT POLE AWARD: Matt Kenseth (183.243 mph, 29.469 secs,)
· DIRECTV CREW CHIEF OF THE RACE AWARD: Bob Osborne (crew chief for Carl Edwards)
· GOODYEAR GATORBACK BELTS FASTEST LAP AWARD: Jimmie Johnson (179.862 mph, Lap 170)
· MAHLE CLEVITE ENGINE BUILDER OF THE RACE AWARD: Penske Engines No. 22
· MOBIL 1 OIL DRIVER OF THE RACE AWARD: Tony Stewart
· MOOG CHASSIS PARTS PROBLEM SOLVER OF THE RACE AWARD: Darian Grubb, 0.235 secs. (crew chief for Tony Stewart)
· O’REILLY AUTO PARTS POSITION IMPROVEMENT AWARD: Kevin Harvick (28 places)
· SUNOCO ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AWARD: Andy Lally