By Steve Waid
In a very curious and debatable series of circumstances, Tony Stewart pulled himself out of the doldrums to win the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks 400 Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
Stewart, the leader of Stewart Haas Racing and a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, had been in an uncharacteristic funk this season, in which he had never had a sniff at victory and earned only two top-10 finishes in the year’s first 12 races, coming into Dover.
He wasn’t even the best in points on his own team. Teammate Ryan Newman, with six top-10 runs, was in 16th place, four spots ahead of Stewart.
But Stewart, from Columbus, Ind., has earned a singular reputation: When the weather turns hot, so does he.
Well, it was 90 degrees in Dover and, sure enough, Stewart got hot.
In addition to his first win of the season, Stewart earned his third win at Dover and the 48th of his career, which ties him with Hall of Famer Herb Thomas for 13th on NASCAR’s all-time victory list.
Stewart was not a factor in the race – not at all – until he found himself in fourth place when the race restarted from its seventh and final caution period on lap 382.
Stewart gained track position by forgoing a four-tire change.
“If somebody would have told me it was going to be that way yesterday I would have told them they were crazy,” Stewart said. “This thing was not a car that could win the race.”
“It was just great pit strategy at the end. We had a car that was solid; we just never got track position to get in clean air. It felt a lot better up front.”
“It didn’t seem like the guys that took four tires had a huge advantage taking off there.”
Stewart ran down race leader Juan Pablo Montoya, who was trying to in his first race on an oval track, by lap 398 of 400 to lead the final three laps – the only laps he led all day.
However, it’s likely Stewart would have been an also-ran had not a bizarre situation arose on the final restart.
Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion driver for Hendrick Motorsports, had run a gutsy race.
Because his car was handling so poorly, he was in danger of losing a lap early in the race – which he did when he pitted early.
But all the proper adjustments were made and Johnson, a seven-time Dover winner, charged back through the field to take the lead for the first time on lap 206.
He went on to lead 143 laps, second only to Kyle Busch with 150. It was a testament to the skills of his Hendrick team.
On the fateful final restart, Johnson was second to Montoya. As they reached the restart point just beyond the fourth turn, Johnson shot past Montoya so quickly that observers thought the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had spun his wheels.
It seemed Johnson would breeze to victory. But NASCAR prevented that. It ruled that Johnson had jumped the restart.
While he did indeed restart in the proper area, the task of getting back to speed is the race leader’s – Montoya’s – responsibility.
Johnson could have saved himself if he had slowed down and let Montoya retake the lead, but that didn’t happen.
The debate arose immediately. Did Johnson, in fact, break the rules or did Montoya deliberately hold back to see to it that indeed he did – and therefore keep the lead?
Rest assured opinions for both sides were immediate and plentiful.
“I was at half-throttle for the whole frontstretch,” said Johnson, who admitted he was surprised that NASCAR gave him the black flag that led to a 17th-place finish. “And at some point, I gotta go. And in this situation, NASCAR has the judgment to decide if you jumped it or not.
“But I’m like, he’s (Montoya) is not even going. So I’m not sure if his car broke or if it was off power or spun the tires. I don’t know.
“So I’m running half-throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him and he never comes. At that point, we got back going. Chad (Knaus, crew chief) even told me on the radio that something that had happened and that I should just take off and not worry about it.”
“And then we were called on it. It’s a bummer of a way to lose a race. We certainly had the winning car.”
That may be but nothing is assured in NASCAR. Even Stewart would agree that for him to win at Dover was anything but assured.
But he found himself in position to take the victory and that’s what he did.
“When we noticed we were catching Montoya, we kind of got going on the bottom there,” Stewart said. “We realized we were making up even more time when we could stay right on the bottom.
“Montoya was smart. He was watching and he picked up on that and moved down. I couldn’t really make any ground there any more so I had to try something.
“Jeff (Gordon) was coming behind us there. I was willing to risk running third to battle for the win instead. If it didn’t work out and I dropped back a spot it was worth it.
The victory helped Stewart’s chances at making the Chase. He advanced to 16th in points and currently is the only driver outside the top 10 with a victory and a shot at a “wildcard” entry.
Even so, he admits his team has work to do.
“We got two weeks of momentum under our belt now at two totally different race tracks,” Stewart said. “That is big. Momentum is huge in this sport.
“We still got a lot of work to do. I guarantee you none of these guys behind me will tell you we are exactly where we want to be right now.
“It’s a good reward for how hard they have been working to get that first win of the year.
“Now it’s trying to be more consistent and stay in the top-10 more and make our program better.”
Steve Waid writes for MotorSportsUnplugged.com.