Tony Stewart's fourth-place finish in the season-ending Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway was a microcosm of his 2004 season.

Stewart ran strong in Sunday's race, coming from his eighth-place starting spot to take the lead on lap 149. But he was thwarted by a black flag penalty and a lack of fuel when the race was extended from its 267-lap distance to 271 laps due to a green-white-chequered finish. As a result, Stewart saw his third win of the season and the 20th of his career slip away.

"The fuel pressure gauge went to zero and then it never came back up again," said Stewart in reference to the race's last restart in overtime on lap 269. "Just riding around out there on the banking while under caution must've gotten just enough air in the fuel line to make it sputter there at the restart. I'm lucky I didn't get run over. That's just kind of the way our season's been."

After twice being as high as second in the championship point standings, once following the season-opening Daytona 500 and again after round three and four at Las Vegas and Atlanta, respectively, Stewart was one of the top-10 drivers to make the cut in the inaugural Chase for the Championship. But a crash not of his making at New Hampshire back in September, the first of the final 10 races in the playoff-style format, put Stewart in a point deficit he was never able to overcome. Despite posting five top-10 finishes in the remaining nine races, Stewart finished sixth in points.

However disappointing, it was still a position better than last year's seventh-place point result, and it continued Stewart's streak of top-10 point finishes in every year he's competed in Nextel Cup since joining the tour in 1999. Sunday's fourth-place result was Stewart's 10th top-five finish of the season, a year in which he scored two wins and 19 top-10s.

Getting that final top-10 was quite a feat though, as Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli had to overcome a slightly loose handling #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Home Depot Chevrolet at Homestead's 1.5-mile oval.

But overcome they did, as Stewart took the lead on lap 149 thanks to a smart, fuel-only pit stop while under caution. When the race went back to green, Stewart proved that he hadn't lucked into the spot, as he paced the 43-car field for the next 22 laps.

Stewart would've continued his time at the front, but it was on a lap 170 restart where NASCAR black-flagged Stewart for an improper restart. Concerned with the #17 Ford of Matt Kenseth, who was on the inside of Stewart and lagging back to try to get a jump on the restart to earn his lap back, Stewart slowed to Kenseth's pace, keeping the #17 driver in check. This dismayed NASCAR officials, however, who waived the restart off.

Via radio NASCAR told Zipadelli to have his driver close the distance between himself and the pace car. Stewart obliged, but on the second attempt at the restart, NASCAR didn't like the way Stewart was weaving slightly back and forth to clean off his tyres as he came off turn four in anticipation of the green.

Having enough, NASCAR black-flagged Stewart, with a drive through penalty down pit road.

Obviously unhappy with the call, Stewart and Co. managed to catch a break when the caution flag waved on lap 174. Stewart was able to serve his penalty under caution and not lose a lap. He then pitted for service the next time around, re-joining the field in 25th. And with many laps still remaining, Stewart knew he could work his way back to the front.

Another fuel-only stop while under caution on lap 200 aided Stewart's ascension up the leaderboard. He returned to the track in 11th, and with what was thought to be 60 laps to go, appeared safe to go the distance on fuel.

Stewart again found himself in the lead on lap 236 with a strong pass of Ryan Newman down the frontstretch. Newman battled back to retake the lead on lap 243, but Stewart showed his resilience as well, keeping pace with Newman and taking advantage of his misfortune when a cut right front tire sent Newman into the turn one wall on lap 266.

Stewart was back in the lead, but it came with a price. The debris strewn from Newman's crash took track safety crews four laps to clean up. With his car already running on fumes, the extra laps via the green-white-checker finish did not bode well for a strong restart when the race returned to green for a two-lap dash to the finish.

As gas man Jeff "Gooch" Patterson paced the pit lane, seemingly sensing the inevitable, it happened. The green flag dropped, and when Stewart's right foot punched the throttle, the #20 machine sputtered. The loss of momentum was just enough to allow Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to get by. Stewart coaxed The Home Depot Chevrolet across the finish line, holding fifth-place Kurt Busch at bay.

Now with the racing season over, Stewart and his Nextel Cup brethren head to New York City for the annual awards banquet in December. Once there, Busch, the new Nextel Cup Series champion, will be honoured, along with the rest of the top-10.