Tony Stewart's up-and-down weekend ended on the right note, in victory lane at Chicagoland Speedway's NASCAR Nextel Cup race today.
Stewart started 10th and quickly worked his way to the front, moving up to fourth in the first 12 laps and then taking the lead for the first time on lap 49. Stewart held off Johnson during the 11-lap shootout to close the race for his 18th career win.
"What an awesome weekend," Stewart said from victory lane. "These Home Depot guys -- they had the longest day on Friday -- they just did a great job. It just shows the determination in this Joe Gibbs Racing team. These guys just don't quit. I'm pretty fortunate to be with these guys."
With Kahne leading the field back to the green flag on lap 127, Stewart, who was restarting two rows back, moved to the outside line to pass Sterling Marlin and Brian Vickers. Stewart darted back in line as the leader was shifting into fourth gear. Kahne got loose and Stewart smacked into the back of the #9 Dodge sending it heavily into the wall. Dave Blaney, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were also caught up in the crash.
"That was just Tony Stewart doing what he's been doing all year -- driving like a moron," said Kahne's crew chief Tommy Baldwin Jr. "There's no reason to do that stuff. He gets away with it all he wants and all NASCAR does is fine him. He's got plenty of money. The guy needs to sit out a race."
Baldwin went to the #20 pit to voice his displeasure with Stewart's action on the track and a fight broke out between the two teams.
"I went to talk to him to tell Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) that his driver is a moron and he came down off the pit box and they started pushing me," said Baldwin, who was summoned, along with Zipadelli, to appear in the NASCAR trailer following the race.
"All I know is I got around the 40 car (Marlin) and I got back in the slot," said Stewart, the 2002 series champion. "I was catching him and I started checking up and then he checked up. I was right on his butt and all the sudden he checked up. Kasey is one of the young guys that came from the same ranks I did. That's the last guy you'd want to hurt. I hate it for him and I hate it for us -- it could have tore our car up just as easy."
Stewart was the centre of another controversy when he struck Vickers with an open hand after the race in Sonoma two weeks ago. Stewart was fined, put on probation and docked championship points, but other drivers questioned whether he should have been suspended.
Zipadelli was proud that his team was able to put aside the controversy of the Sonoma incident, as well as the conflict in the pits, and focus on the job at hand.
"For everything that happened, everyone has stuck together," Zipadelli said. "Tony is focused and did a hell of a job today. One thing good about these guys -- they're racers and they're going to protect each other. I'm just proud of everybody here."
Johnson started third and ran with the leaders despite a tight racecar through the first half of the race. The team worked on freeing the car and Johnson passed Stewart on lap 181 for the lead and built up a two-second advantage over the next 20 laps. Johnson finished second.
"At the end, it was a little edgy and getting started on the loose side," said Johnson, who has finished in the top-5 in 10 of the past 11 races. "We had one segment where we had the best car, but the best car won the race. It was too bad we couldn't had something for him there. It was a great weekend for us."
Marlin, Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemechek gambled on changing just two tires during a yellow flag stop late in the race. Marlin missed a shift and got a bad restart with 53 laps to go giving the lead to Mayfield. Stewart and Johnson, who both took four tires during the pit stop, chased down Mayfield and Stewart took the lead back with 24 laps to go.
Jeff Gordon, who started on the pole for the fourth consecutive race, led the first 16 laps before Kahne and then Greg Biffle drove by him moments before the first caution of the race came out.
The left rear tire on Ryan Newman's Dodge exploded between Turns 1 and 2 and forced the #12 car up the track and into Kurt Busch's Ford sending both drivers to the garage area for an extended period of time.
"I kind of thought I had something going on," said Newman, the defending race winner, before returning to the track 56 laps off the pace. "That was pretty much it."
Gordon, who was looking for his third straight win, battled a loose handling racecar through most of the day but was stronger late in the race and rallied for a fourth-place finish.
"That was an amazing display of teamwork and good fortune," said Gordon, who was lapped by Stewart and got a free pass back to the lead lap under caution. "We were in big trouble -- we had some kid of problem -- I think the left rear jack screw undid itself. We were just so, so loose. We got really far behind -- lost a lap -- and we were almost ready to go another lap down. We were very fortunate today -- things worked in our favor. I told the guys earlier how much they have to appreciate those good days we've been having. Today was a day to appreciate those good ones."
Dale Jarrett finished third for his second top-5 finish in the past four races. The struggling veteran started a season-high fourth.
"We've made a lot of strides," Jarrett explained. "We overcame adversity today. We ran over something and got a flat tire. We came back from almost two laps down. Things are doing well. All in all, a pretty good day for us."
Mayfield rounded out the top-5 with his best finish in four races. He was looking for his first win in more than four years, but in the end, couldn't keep up with the cars that took four tires on the final pit stop.
"We wanted it pretty bad," said Mayfield, who picked up his third top-5 of the season and moved up to 11th in the point standings, 65 points behind Newman. "We were pretty stout all day. We just didn't have the Goodyears at the end to run with the (leaders)."
Kevin Harvick, a two-time winner at Chicagoland, had an overheating problem with his car early in the race and then had to make a green-flag stop with a tire going down on lap 63. He came to finish on the lead lap in 10th and moved up two spots in the point standings to eighth.
Earnhardt rebounded from trouble on and off the track. He blew by the entrance to pit road trying to make a stop on lap 96 and then was black-flagged for speeding down pit road the next time around. The #8 Chevy was a lap down when he got caught up in the restart incident with Stewart and Kahne 30 laps later.
"The car was pretty good -- I cost us a lap," admitted Earnhardt, who finished 22nd, but held onto second in the championship standings. "We spent most of the day a lap down. We gained a lot -- we weren't good at all yesterday. Things just didn't go our way today."
After a third place finish in the Busch Series race on Saturday, Burton was anticipating another strong finish on Sunday. He was running among the top-5 early in the race before getting caught up in the crash with Stewart and Kahne on lap 127.
"I really don't know what happened," Burton said. "He obviously got run into. The guys behind me couldn't get checked up. You can't see through these cars. One thing led to another. We had an easy top-6 or 7 car. It's just bad luck right now."