25 September 2011
Stewart shows he's no one-hit wonder
It looked as though Bowyer had this one clinched - that he had enough in reserve to hold off Stewart. But Stewart continued to apply the pressure, hoping for a slight error from Bowyer or possibly just driving the #33 over the edge on fuel. After all, last year Stewart has been on course to win when he had run dry on the final lap and handed the victory to Bowyer. Maybe the gods would restore the balance of fortune this time around? It was worth a try.
Boy, was it ever worth a try. With two laps to go, Smoke's prayers were indeed answered and Bowyer's car ceased to have even fumes to run on. The car choked and crawled for pit lane and Stewart was released to take the white flag and then run the final mile to claim the chequered. For a man who just a fortnight ago couldn't find victory lane with a SatNav and a guide dog, suddenly Stewart couldn't miss it. For a second week in a row.
"If that's not a flip-flop from last year, I don't know what is!" Stewart said to Grubb over the car radio. He could relate all-too-well to the anguish Bowyer was feeling, but he couldn't dwell on that: "That's not the way you want to win, but we're in the Chase now, and we've got to get everything we can get."
A buoyant Grubb revealed that the #14 still had a good two laps' worth of gas on board to cover them in the event of a green-white-chequered that had never materialised. "It's just a huge day for the entire team to battle back from all the adversity we had in the middle of the year," he said.
It was Stewart's 41st win in 456 Cup starts, the eighth for his Stewart/Haas team with crew chief Darian Grubb. And he'd done it by leading just two of the 300 laps of the race - Jeff Gordon took the bonus point for most laps led with 78 in front, followed by Ryan Newman for his 62-lap stint in front at the start of the race and then Clint Bowyer for his so-near run of 49 laps in the lead at the end.
The win puts Stewart into the lead of the Chase championship points battle despite his lack of any wins bonus points coming in. He finally overtakes Kevin Harvick in the Chase, after the #29 struggled with fuel mileage and managed only 12th place by the end after having run in the top five for long stretches during the afternoon. Other Chase contenders had similar problems: by the time Bowyer's fuel ran dry with two to go, Denny Hamlin had also run out of gas a lap earlier and both Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had fallen out of contention with flat tyres in the final laps.
But Brad Kesewloski had run an impressive second half of the race to steadily gain in positions, and as others fell away he took advantage to finish in a comfortable second place ahead of Greg Biffle who also ran out of gas in the final seconds but held on to third, while Jeff Gordon - who had clearly been the strongest car out there for a big part of the race - had to settle for fourth place ahead of Red Bull's Brian Vickers. Matt Kenseth recovered from that mid-race spin to lead his Roush Fenway team mates David Ragan and Carl Edwards to a formation finish in sixth, seventh and eighth ahead of Juan Montoya who had made the best of that off-sync call during the cautions to finish in the top ten.
That makes for good news for Brad Keselowski who rises to third in the Chase race, despite also missing out on wins bonus points coming in (his three race win credits were 'burned up' in having to use the wildcard to make the Chase in the first place). Jeff Gordon's the biggest mover this week among the Chase contenders, rallying from the aftermath of a disappointing Chicagoland to climb six spots to fifth place. That puts him just ahead of a three-way battle for sixth in the points between Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.
Busch never had a race-winning car and was involved in a gripping battle for 13th with Jimmie Johnson when the two made hard contact on lap 279; Busch somehow managed to avoid spinning out, but Johnson came off the worst for it with damage to his suspension for the remainder of the race.
"He was being a bit stubborn ... Just racing really hard, which was just what he's supposed to do" Johnson said of Kyle. "I had gotten inside of him the lap before and had some contact and he was running it really, really tight through the corner and as we got off into 3, he was so tight next to me getting in, it took the air off the spoiler and I was out of control before we ever really got to the turn."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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