Stewart holds off rookie to end winless streak
TALLADEGA, Ala. - Tony Stewart ended his frustrating winless season yesterday by earning his first Sprint Cup victory at Talladega Superspeedway when NASCAR ruled rookie Regan Smith's last-lap pass was illegal.
Smith, in second place, trailed Stewart for the final three laps before making one desperate attempt to grab his first career victory by ducking inside of the two-time champion to attempt a pass. Stewart blocked, but Smith dove below the yellow out-of-bounds line at the bottom of the track and beat Stewart to the finish line.
NASCAR reviewed the move - a driver is allowed to make the pass if officials believe he was forced under the line - and declared it illegal.
"I knew I was only going to get one shot at him," Smith said. "I was always told that the rule is if you get forced down there, then you are the winner of the race and on the last lap, anything goes. That's what I was going with.
"I got forced down there, man, I had a nose inside of him and I could have piled up the whole field."
The ruling snapped Stewart's 43-race winless streak. It also was his first career Cup win at Talladega, which has taunted him for 10 years as he finished second a maddening six times.
It looked as if he'd again come up short, especially after he was caught in a Friday accident when Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli decided to fix the damaged car instead of moving to the backup, and the No. 20 crew worked late Friday making the repairs. Despite starting 34th, Stewart was buoyed by flawless strategy that helped him avoid a late accident and execute a perfect restart.
Paul Menard was a career-high second and was followed by rookie David Ragan and Chase drivers Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer. Smith was dropped all the way to 18th.
The race, which had a NASCAR-record 31 lead changes, lived up to its reputation as the "wild card" of the 10 Chase events. Talladega is the one Chase race every driver fears will ruin his title hopes.
It most certainly did for Denny Hamlin, who was alert and awake when taken to a Birmingham hospital after his tire exploded while he was leading and his car slammed into the outside wall. Hamlin, who finished 39th and dropped to last in the Chase field, was held overnight for evaluation.
And it may very well have sunk the Roush Fenway Racing trio of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth, who were at the front of the 12-car accident with 16 laps to go. It started when Edwards tried to give Biffle a shove to the front, but the bump caused Biffle to spin into Kenseth as all three Roush Fenway Racing cars crashed. The carnage spread to Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch, but Jimmie Johnson deftly maneuvered through the wreckage and pushed his lead in the standings to 72 points.