Tony Stewart timed his final restart perfectly and came away with his first Nextel Cup win of the year in a typically brutal short track encounter at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.
The defending series champion finally opened his 2006 win account at the sixth time of asking, after leading nearly 300 of the 50 laps that made up the DirecTV 500 and steering clear of his nearest pursuers over a final three lap dash to the chequered flag.
After trading paint several times with polesitter Jimmie Johnson in the final 100 laps, Stewart finally got ahead of his main nemesis on lap 473 after a race long tussle.
Johnson continually used his ideally placed pit stall to good use, winning the race off pit road on all but a couple of occasions to lead a total of 195 laps but with the rear of his #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet gradually losing grip, the 2006 Daytona 500 winner faded somewhat in the final 30 laps.
The final run to the chequered flag was punctuated by two late cautions, the 15th and 16th of the day that resulted in all but a handful of the final ten laps running under green, spoiling what was building towards a nail biting crescendo. The second of those cautions, caused when Matt Kenseth's brake-less #17 Roush Racing slammed the outside wall in turn one, resulted in NASCAR throwing the red flag to clear up the oil from Kenseth's crumpled car and leaving the three lap shootout.
On the restart Stewart led Hendrick trio Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Kyle Busch but a combination of a perfectly timed jump and a slip by Gordon on the oil dry left in the wake of Kenseth's crash gave the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing driver all the room he needed to make the decisive getaway.
Gordon was not too displeased with second place after suffering a puncture on lap 90 and falling to 25th. Although Gordon's subsequent fight back took all of 400 laps, he made his recovery while avoiding the many pitfalls associated with racing in close quarters on the flat half-mile Martinsville oval. The four-times champion finally passed teammate Johnson on lap 483 and may have had something for Stewart had the final 20 laps run without further interruption.
Johnson held on to third, retaking the points lead in the process but after having all the pit road cards stacked in his favour, he will have been disappointed not to have taken the win. Johnson's third place came under increasing pressure in the final three laps from teammate Busch, although the driver of the #5 Chevrolet would fall victim to a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr on the final corner.
Earnhardt Jr's drive to fourth was stirring after he sustained heavy front end damage to his #8 DEI Chevrolet on the second lap of the race when he got caught up in the biggest crash of the day in turn one. Despite having the entire right front corner removed Earnhardt Jr was still able to motor back through the field from as low as 42nd to fourth when, on lap 316, he found Ryan Newman chopping across the front of his already damaged machine, nudging him into the inside wall in turn four.