Stewart rules day in Sprint Cup race
MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go yesterday and surged into contention for his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with three races remaining. Then, Stewart playfully called out points leader Carl Edwards in a duel to the finish.
“He better be worried. That’s all I’ve got to say,’’ Stewart said of Edwards, a broad smile spreading across his face in Victory Lane. “He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.’’
The victory was the third for Stewart in the first seven races of the 10-race playoffs, and he was easily the leading benefactor as the points race was significantly jumbled.
Stewart moved from 19 points behind leader Edwards and in fourth place to just 8 points behind in second as several contenders got caught up in a season-high 18 caution flags.
Even Stewart had trouble, at one point having to apologize to race leader Denny Hamlin for racing him hard to stay on the lead lap. And that was with less than 20 laps to go.
“I was pretty mad all day, but I was the only guy who didn’t get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that,’’ Stewart said.
The winning pass, he said, surprised even him.
“I don’t think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside,’’ he said, crediting crew chief Darian Grubb for making the right calls and adjustments all race long. “I don’t think we had the best race car today by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew.’’
Johnson, for much of the day, looked like he might be the one making a huge gain in the points race, especially as Edwards floundered in the mid-20s and wasn’t getting any better.
The cautions, which slowed things for 108 laps, also a season high, allowed Johnson to weather a call by crew chief Chad Knaus to stay out when all the leaders behind him pitted for fresh tires with just over 40 laps to go. But he couldn’t hold on with Stewart pressing him at the end.
“I just could not get away from him on the restart,’’ he said, adding that he tried to be cognizant of Stewart’s better position in the championship battle. “I thought about going in there and leaning on him, move him up, but that is just not the right thing to do.’’
Stewart last won the championship in 2005. Edwards laughed when told of Stewart’s challenge.
“He’s wound up. He won the race. We’ll see what happens at Texas,’’ Edwards said. “I told you guys I thought he was one of the guys that could win this race and be a guy that you’d have to beat for the championship and I think he’s proving that right now. But yeah, we’ll have fun.’’
Jeff Gordon finished third, and saw plenty of mayhem all race long.
“That was crazy. The racing was crazy,’’ he said.
Kevin Harvick finished fourth and moved into third in the points race, 21 behind Edwards. Hamlin was fourth, followed by Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Martin Truex Jr. Johnson, who started the day seventh in points, moved into sixth with his second-place run, but is still 43 points off the lead in search of his sixth consecutive championship.