Also fighting back from earlier disasters was Denny Hamlin, who was penalised for a missing lugnut during a pit stop on lap 74 and went a lap down as a result, and then had a right-front tyre blow-out on him on lap 123 just when he'd put himself in place for the lucky dog free pass. He'd finally got that lap back and was now back in the top ten, as was Brian Vickers who'd been handed a stop-and-go penalty on lap 75 for removing equipment out of the pit stall which had put him a lap down before he finally got the wavearound on lap 159.
"First pit stop of the race we made a mistake on pit road," explained crew chief Rodney Childers later. "We made a really big adjustment - a double adjustment in the rear -- and left the wrench on the deck lid and it ended up getting a penalty and getting a lap down.
"We all fought all day and Brian never gave up and just drove his butt off all day, and we just got the right opportunity at the end. Sometimes days go your way and sometimes they don't, and we've had plenty that haven't. So, just very fortunate that things worked out at the end the way that they did.
Now Vickers was firmly on the pace and starting to move into the top three in the #55 Aaron's Michael Waltrip Racing car usually piloted by Mark Martin. Even so, it seemed a lot to expect the #55 to challenge for the outright win. After Gordon's spin, it seemed that the remaining 39 laps might actually go caution free. Stewart was straining to stay ahead while aware just how critical his fuel situation was, having not stopped since lap 203; but a quick top-up for Vickers under a brief caution a dozen laps after Stewart's now allowed the #55 the luxury of not having to worry about saving gas. Vickers was past Kyle Busch for second spot on lap 281 and then four laps later he bore down on Stewart and took the lead for the first time in the race.
"I know if he got by Kyle that we were going to be in trouble," admitted Stewart. "He had been able to stalk Kyle for a really long time. It was hard to stay that close to somebody for very long. I knew when he got by that we were in trouble."
But just as it appeared the race order had been decided, there was to be another sting in the tale with a debris caution five laps from the finish which extended the race an extra mile for a green-white-chequered attempt: Vickers managed the three-wide restart with aplomb and left Stewart and Busch battling in his rear view mirror, and then Busch was obliged to jink violently to the left when the #14 abruptly slowed: Stewart was out of gas.
"It's hard to calculate how much we are saving on the cautions so thought we were about three quarters of a lap to the good there before that last caution," said Stewart. "Obviously didn't get saved as much as I thought we would." It was a costly mistake, dropping Stewart all the way down to 26th place in the final standings and losing him three spots in the Sprint Cup championship standings, putting him once more outside the all-important top ten that decide who will make the post-season Chase for the 2013 title.
Vickers meanwhile was free and clear across the line to claim the win, his first since Michigan almost four years ago. It had been a torrid time since then for the 29-year-old from North Carolina, who was dramatically sidelined in 2010 for a serious medical condition, only to return to full-time NASCAR duty in 2011 and find that his team Red Bull Racing were quitting the sport leaving him without a full-time ride going forward. Since then he's been competing for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series and running a limited number of Cup races in the #55 Aaron's car in the hope that it might lead to a full-time drive down the line when (or indeed if) the perennially youthful Martin finally decides to hang up his helmet.
"Obviously being able to win after all that is just almost unimaginable,' admitted Vickers. "It's so beyond what I was thinking about in that moment; just getting back into a race car was all I could think about," he said, adding: "It couldn't have been filled with more trials and tribulations, but thanks to so much support from friends and family and this year my fiancée Sarah."
After such a backstory it was no surprise that Vickers was a popular winner at Loudon on Sunday with many of his fellow competitors making it a point to congratulate him on the cool-down lap. Vickers then picked up the chequered flag from the officials and started to high-five fans through the fencing, and from the look of it he was fully prepared to carry on for a full one-mile lap around the superspeedway before NASCAR officials reminded him there was a podium celebration to attend.