FINALLY, 'THE BIG ONE' FOR STEWART AT TALLADEGA Home Depot Driver Escapes Two Big Wrecks, Last-Lap Challenge to Score First Career Sprint Cup Victory at Legendary Superspeedway Sometimes, the best things in life are just worth waiting for.
FINALLY, 'THE BIG ONE' FOR STEWART AT TALLADEGA
Home Depot Driver Escapes Two Big Wrecks, Last-Lap Challenge to Score First Career Sprint Cup Victory at Legendary Superspeedway
Sometimes, the best things in life are just worth waiting for. It's an old, worn-out cliche, but not nearly as worn-out in the mind of Tony Stewart, as his tireless yet unfruitful efforts to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in 19 previous visits to the 2.66-mile tri-oval. Stewart had flirted with victory on numerous occasions with nothing to show for it but six -- count 'em, six -- runner-up finishes.
Until Sunday, that is, when Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Subway/Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), managed to avoid a pair of huge superspeedway-style "big wrecks" and a furious challenge during a green-white-checker finish to score the victory in the AMP Energy 500 for his first career Sprint Cup win at Talladega.
Ironically, Stewart's No. 20 Toyota was once again the second car to take the checkered flag today, but Regan Smith in the No. 01 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) had to venture far below the yellow out-of-bounds line to complete an inside pass on Stewart to beat him across the finish line -- a NASCAR no-no at Talladega that sent Smith to the back of the lead-lap finishers in 18th-place in the final standings and gave Stewart his 33rd career Sprint Cup victory and first of the season.
"It's one thing to get back to victory lane, but to do it at Talladega -- this is one of about four places I hadn't won a Cup race at, and talk about one to win. I've wanted to win here for so long," Stewart said. "I have so many friends down here -- Red Farmer and Donnie Allison. And all these fans, man, there's so much (Home Depot) orange up there. This hasn't been one of my favorite places on the fan side. People haven't always liked me here. But this one is for those guys up in the stands today."
Stewart was one of a Sprint Cup Series-record 28 different lap leaders in the 190-lap event. He held the point on four separate occasions, albeit only briefly on the first three while employing a conservative strategy over the first 450 miles. Stewart moved into the lead for good with a pass of Juan Pablo Montoya on lap 174 -- just before the race's biggest multi-car accident was triggered not far off his rear bumper on lap 175. That one, featuring fellow Chase for the Sprint Cup contender Carl Edwards, took out 12 cars and brought out the race's second red-flag stoppage.
"We just tried to be careful the first part of the day," said Stewart, whose only other career victory at Talladega came in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race in April. "When we got behind Jeff Gordon there at one point, we were trying to push too much and (the engine) got hot, so we just had to back off. I was just patient until the last half of the race, and finally got ourselves in position to stay up front.
"This thing drove awesome all day. It was just a matter of running with the right guys. The 6 (David Ragan) was really good, the 17 (Matt Kenseth), the 31 (Jeff Burton) -- there were some cars that were really good pushing and I am just glad that we finally got one for Subway and Home Depot because we haven't had much luck for them this year."
After the lap-179 restart, Stewart and his No. 20 Toyota had little trouble keeping challengers behind him. He and Smith, in fact, opened up a hefty gap on the rest of the field with Smith pushing Stewart along. A final debris caution on lap 186, however, brought the field back together again and set the stage for the green-white-checker finish. Again, Stewart was able to ride the low line and keep everyone behind him, but Smith, made one last, valiant effort coming to the checkered flag.
"Just don't get too big of a gap behind me and I knew, with three DEI cars behind me, it was going to be tough to hold on," Stewart said. "We got a really good push from Regan (Smith) on the backstretch, there. I thought he was going to be able to stay on the bumper, and if he was able to stay there, then I knew there wasn't anybody that was going to be able to get to us. He got away from us there and got a gap and he got a good run. I just had to try to protect it to the end.
"I thought once we got through that first (green-white-checker) lap we were going to be all right. But we got to the backstretch and he got to the bumper, which was the plan, and I was hoping he would get there. If he could have stayed there all the way around to (turn) four and all the way through the frontstretch, then there was no way that anybody could get to the two of us. He got a gap there off of turn four and that gave him a run and I just had to protect my line. You hate to have to do that, but to win here at Talladega, I would just about wreck the whole field to win here at Talladega, finally."
Stewart's JGR teammates -- Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin -- finished 15th and 39th, respectively, in the AMP Energy 500.
Finishing .052 of second behind Stewart in the runner-up slot was Paul Menard, who collected his career-best Sprint Cup result. Ragan finished third, while Burton and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top-five. Bobby Labonte, Scott Riggs, Robby Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Elliott Sadler comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 10 caution periods for 41 laps -- including two red-flag stoppages for a total of 29 minutes, 12 seconds to clean up multi-car accidents -- with 16 drivers failing to finish the 190-lap race, which was extended two laps past its scheduled 188-lap distance due to a green-white-checkered finish.
All three JGR drivers are represented in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Stewart now leads the JGR trio in points, as his victory moved him up four spots to seventh, 203 markers arrears series leader Johnson. Busch gained one position and is 11th in the standings, 331 points out of the lead. Hamlin dropped two spots to 12th and is 335 points behind Johnson.