Some may call it a lucky win, but Tony Stewart's had enough bad luck so far in 2013 that he'll take it however it comes. When the opportunity came to benefit from the misfortunes of other drivers who had earlier dominated the afternoon's FedEx 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the one-mile Dover International Speedway on Sunday, he seized the chance with both hands and didn't let go until the chequered flag came out.
Denny Hamlin had started the race from pole and quickly pulled out a one second lead over Martin Truex Jr., who had to surrender second spot to Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team mates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. After 23 laps it was Busch who seized the lead from Hamlin and started to build up an even more impressive lead of nearly three seconds in short order.
Less happy with things was Danica Patrick, who after a solid start had taken right front damage from jostling with David Stremme and who needed to pit early on lap 41 to get the #10's handling sorted out. Both Richard Petty Motorsports drivers went a lap down early, and even Jimmie Johnson -struggling with a horribly loose #48 - succumbed to Busch just before his own first pit stop on lap 71. Not that the JGR trio were having it all their own way, as Hamlin missed pit road on his own stop and had to cycle around again, losing position and dropping to seventh as a result just ahead of the first caution of the day for debris on lap 79 which came after everyone had completed their first round of stops.
Busch continued to lead at the restart ahead of Kenseth, Truex, Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin, while Jimmie Johnson was a lot happier after his Hendrick Motorsports crew had dialled in changes and was now in 15th and moving forward having got back on the lead lap whereas his team mate Jeff Gordon was struggling with the #24 now too tight as the race completed its first quarter. Kurt Busch has the opposite problem, the #78 Furniture Row Racing car desperately loose sending him further off the pace, making him particularly appreciative of the second debris caution on lap 127 that allowed for a new round of pit stops to put things right.
Kenseth beat Busch off pit road to lead at the restart, with Truex holding on to third as the Earnhardt-Ganassi pair of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray moving into the top six and jockeying for position with Kasey Kahne. But Kenseth's time at the top was soon over, his Toyota engine blowing which sent him on a one-way crawl to the garage on lap 160 coinciding with the third caution of the afternoon caused by debris and fluid on the track, partly from his engine failure and partly from a tyre blow-out afflicting Penske Racing's Joey Logano.
"I can't be any easier on it than I've been," said Kenseth of his engine failure. "It's just something was wrong. You know what I mean? It's not driver-induced, it's not too many miles in practice.
"I really feel like JGR has three of the strongest race teams and three of the best cars in the garage, but you've got to finish these races to win and you've got to finish races to try to win championships," Kenseth added. "Hopefully we'll have it all figured out before September," when the Chase begins.
Busch led at the restart with Truex, Hamlin, Kahne, McMurray and Montoya now joined by Kevin Harvick and a resurgent Johnson in the top eight on lap 172 as the halfway point loomed into view and the clouds built up overhead, cooling off the track and making everyone worry about pop=up showers moving into the area. As the race passed lap 200, Busch continued to lead but was struggling on his worn tyres and now firmly in the sights of a flying #48; on lap 205 the deed was done and the JGR domination was over as Johnson took charge and Busch dropped to third behind Truex. Hamlin was showing similar signs of fading, yielding fifth place to Harvick just before a round of green flag pit stops began on lap 235.
With 150 laps to go, Johnson led Truex, Busch, Hamlin and Harvick, while it was proving a depressing afternoon for the Roush Fenway Racing team with all three drivers (Carl Edwards, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle) all having been lapped at a track they are traditionally strong at. But on lap 279, it was Truex's turn to exit the proceedings, with the second Toyota engine failure of the day bringing out the fourth caution of the race and making the remaining JGR and MWR runners increasingly nervous about their chances of surviving the remaining 121 laps - and Toyota execs watching increasingly nervous of the increasingly shaky reputation of their product in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Kahne took over from the waning Busch in second place to leader Johnson at the restart on lap 287. The handling of the #18 was clearly awry and Busch would have been pleased to see the quick return to caution as Ryan Newman turned David Gilliland into the wall on the backstretch on lap 299 that had Gilliland storming over the remonstrate with Newman through the window of the #39 after the Stewart-Haas car got instant karmic payback from the #38 rebounding straight into him.
"We just got wrecked, it is a shame," said Gilliland. "We had a fast race car and a great run going and unfortunately someone lost their patience a little bit and we got wrecked. It is too bad but that is just the way it goes I guess.”
At the restart on lap 305, Hamlin took point with Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski jumping up after opting to stay off pit lane ahead of Montoya, Johnson, Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had opted for two tyres only putting them back out ahead of Harvick and Kyle Busch. With less than a hundred laps to go of the Dover International Speedway 'Monster Mile' oval, things were starting to get heated and Montoya encouraged Keselowski to swipe the wall just before Kasey Kahne ended up in the wall in turn 2 on lap 316 to bring out the sixth caution.
Kurt Busch led at the restart by staying off pit road, but was soon passed by Johnson after the restart on lap 321 with Montoya in third, his EGR team mate McMurray having pulled off track and headed to the garage with a broken radiator. Despite running on older tyres, Kurt was able to maintain second place until his off-sync stop on lap 363 dropped him off the lead lap and down to 18th place.
Lap 376 saw the seventh caution of the race - 14 laps too late to help Kurt Busch - and this time it was for a hard impact with the wall for Denny Hamlin after an upper control arm broke. That meant it was time for pit stop strategies to come into play, and at the restart it was Montoya who won the race off pit lane after a two-tyre stop but he was quickly displaced by Johnson at the green flag - who immediately got a drive-thru penalty for jumping the restart, a devastating blow for the #48 which looked to have the race victory firmly in sight. Johnson was complaining bitterly about the call, saying he'd checked up and that it was Montoya's problem spinning his tyres than had made Johnson look bad, but NASCAR was unmoved and the sanction stood.
"I was half-throttle for the whole frontstretch, and at some point, I gotta go," explained Johnson later. "And in this situation, NASCAR has the judgement to decide if you jumped it or not. But I'm like, he's is not even going. So I'm not sure if his car broke or if off power or spun the tyres; I don't know. So I'm running half-throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him and he never comes."
With Johnson demoted, for a moment it looked as through the way was clear for Montoya to claim his first oval win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series; but then no sooner had the prospect blossomed than it was snuffed out, by a somewhat unlikely figure. Tony Stewart had barely featured in the proceedings all afternoon, which was in line with a pretty mediocre season as a whole to date, but now he was suddenly looming large in the Colombian's rear view mirrors.
“When we noticed we were catching him we kind of got going on the bottom there and realising we were making up even more time when we could stay right on the bottom," explained Stewart of his approach to those final few laps. "He was smart, he was watching and he picked up on that and moved down. couldn't really make any ground there any more so I had to try something.
"Jeff was coming behind us there. I was willing to risk running third to battle for the win instead. If it didn't work out and I dropped back a spot it was worth it," he said. "It's fun when you can battle guys like Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon like that. That is two pretty cool names to be racing for the win with!"
With his reputation for taking swift and unequivocal retaliation against anyone who dared try blocking him, Stewart had the psychological edge against Montoya who couldn't afford to lose a top-two finish, and so the #14 car swept past into the lead - and on to claim the white flag and then the chequered, with Montoya finishing 0.788s back in second ahead of Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer.
"If somebody would have told me it was going to be that way yesterday I would have told them they were crazy," admitted Stewart in victory lane. "This thing was not a car that could win the race. Just great pit strategy at the end. We had a car that was solid we just never got track position to get in clean air. It felt a lot better up front!"
"He was way quicker. I don't understand where he came from. He wasn't that good all day, and he was good when it mattered," said Montoya, ruing the near-miss. "I was just too loose. I didn't have enough drive off the corner. I was too loose in. It was hard I was trying to do the best I could. The more you try and you stop using the tires the worse it is. Then if you back off them it's as bad. It's one of those deals where we were just not quick enough."
Keselowski's car subsequently failed a ride height test in post-race technical inspection and so he will face mid-week penalties - particularly as crew chief Paul Wolfe is already on NASCAR probation for an earlier infraction, which might allow NASCAR to have the last word after Penske had the original penalties on Wolfe and the team for using unapproved rear suspension components significantly lowered upon appeal.
In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship standings, Johnson continues to lead the point standings, now by a margin of 30 points over Carl Edwards.Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings