IN THE END, IT'S A TALLADEGA NIGHTMARE FOR STEWART Office Depot/Old Spice Driver's Top-Five Bid Foiled by Last-Lap Accident It wasn't the "big wreck" that is typical of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, but a ...
IN THE END, IT'S A TALLADEGA NIGHTMARE FOR STEWART
Office Depot/Old Spice Driver's Top-Five Bid Foiled by Last-Lap Accident
It wasn't the "big wreck" that is typical of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, but a five-car accident on the last lap of Sunday's AMP Energy Juice 500 was big enough for Tony Stewart and his No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), as it ended a brilliant charge into the top-10 and sent him and his team packing up a wrecked racecar and a bitter-tasting 31st-place finish.
After riding around at the back of the pack for 183 of the scheduled 188 laps of the 500-mile event -- not necessarily by choice for that entire time thanks to an early-race tire puncture that sent Stewart to the pits for an unscheduled stop under green that ultimately dropped him three laps off the pace -- Stewart was on the move, having finally worked his way back onto the lead lap with five laps remaining.
Stewart was the beneficiary of the "Lucky Dog" free pass during a lap-180 caution, and crew chief Darian Grubb called him in for four fresh tires and a splash of fuel for his final sprint to the finish. Stewart was 33rd on the lap-184 restart but, with a full head of steam, took the white flag on lap 187 in 11th place and was continuing his forward progress through turns one and two of the 2.66-mile oval.
But, through the tri-oval before turn one, Stewart's Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet was smacked in the left-front fender in the five-car melee, forcing him to limp his damaged racecar back to the start-finish line as the race ended under caution.
"I got mowed over by somebody -- I don't know who, but that was ridiculous," said Stewart over the radio while making his way back to the garage.
"We had a chance to win," Grubb added afterward. "We were 11th when we crashed on the last lap. We were moving. I think we could've been in the top-four, top-five, at least. We were on fresh tires and started from the back of the pack. But, as is the case here, the way it ended up for us is not really racing. That's just luck of the draw."
Considering his early race travails, fighting for the win on the final lap seemed an unlikely place for Stewart. After starting 26th, he dropped toward the back of the pack according to plan, as did a majority of the 12-driver Chase for the Championship contenders during the opening laps of the race in an attempt to stay out of trouble on the high-speed superspeedway.
On lap 19, the SHR team's plan got sidetracked when Stewart radioed to Grubb that he felt his right-front tire going down while on the backstretch. Stewart was able to make it to back pit lane for a new set of tires and a load of fuel, but the slow roll back to the pits under green, as well as the pit stop itself, cost him two laps. He rejoined the race on lap 21 in 41st place, two laps off the pace.
Some 17 laps later, Stewart then reported a vibration emanating from the front of his racecar, which hampered his ability to make up his lost laps during that second fuel-and-tire run.
"I wasn't feeling comfortable pushing it at the time. I felt a little gun-shy," said Stewart over the radio. "The left-front just felt a little unbalanced."
Stewart stopped for the second time under green for fuel and tires on lap 62, dropping him three laps down. He was able to earn two of those laps back during wave-arounds on lap-62 and lap-133 cautions. And, from there, he was able to race his way to the pack of cars one lap down by lap 155. He stayed in that relative position until the next caution flag finally flew on lap 180, putting him back on the lead lap.
"Well, we had a really good car, but then we had some bad luck and got a flat tire right off the bat," Grubb said. "We drove over a piece of debris on lap 19, came in, went three laps down, then came back and still had a chance to win this thing with four to go. I can't say enough about the guys and how hard they worked. I just don't know how long we can keep coming to this place, where you can have a one-lap race and have the same drama you have in 188."
Stewart's SHR teammate Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet Impala, finished 22nd.
Clint Bowyer won the AMP Energy Juice 500 to earn his fourth career Sprint Cup victory, his second of the season and his first victory and fourth top-10 in 10 races at Talladega. It was also Richard Childress Racing's (RCR) 11th victory at Talladega, most among car owners.
Kevin Harvick crossed the finish line in second behind RCR teammate Bowyer as the race ended under caution. Pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann and Joey Logano rounded out the top-five. Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were seven caution periods for 19 laps, with six drivers failing to finish the 188-lap race.
Stewart represents SHR in this year's Chase for the Championship. He came to Talladega seventh among the top-12 drivers competing for this year's title, 236 points behind Chase leader Johnson. His 31st-place finish maintained his seventh spot in points, where he's now 317 markers arrears Johnson.
Newman maintained his 15th place in the standings, the third-highest non-Chase driver, 93 points behind 13th-place Jamie McMurray.