The best car didn’t win at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, but with a solid strategy and sheer determination Tony Stewart capitalized on a rare mistake by Jimmie Johnson to take the victory.
Johnson led 143 laps and appeared destined to score his eighth victory and become the all-time wins leader at the Monster Mile. But when he jumped the restart ahead of race leader Juan Pablo Montoya on Lap 381, Johnson was black-flagged and had to relinquish the point and serve a pass-thru penalty. Johnson returned to the track in 17th place, one lap down, where he would finish the race.
That opened the door for Montoya and Stewart – two drivers desperate for a glimmer of encouragement after an already long season – to battle it out over the final 15 laps.
While Montoya held Stewart off for 11 laps, Stewart finally got to his bumper on Lap 397 and passed Montoya on the backstretch. By the finish, Stewart had extended his lead over Montoya to 0.788 of a second.
“Hell yeah, we won at Dover baby, finally,” Stewart exclaimed as he scored his third win at the Monster Mile and first victory since the July 2012 contest at Daytona, 30 races ago.
Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-five finishers. Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing Ford then failed postrace inspection, but that does not alter his finishing position.
For Stewart, the win was bittersweet.
While he was “ecstatic” about his victory, as a team owner he realizes how much work still lies ahead for an organization that claims just two top-five finishes among three drivers in 39 Sprint Cup starts this season.
"When everything goes good, you still average out with what all three teams do," said Stewart of his organization, which also fields the cars of Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick. "And when it goes bad, you feel that assumption of responsibility for what all three teams have had. So as much as this is a great win and a great victory for us, and great momentum builder for our organization, I will go back and instead of just focusing on the fact that we won, it’s going to be, what happened in Ryan’s day, what happened in Danica’s day.
"And it does make you have to — you have to play cheerleader. I like looking at cheerleaders; I think they are hot. I’m not much of one, but that’s my role. I can’t sit there and go down on a shop floor and tell these guys what to do to make changes to the car to make it better."
Stewart said that his job, as a car owner, is to keep morale high. And, he admits, competition director Greg Zipadelli has carried the weight of that more.
"It’s been very hard, when you’ve had the start to the season we’ve had, you start questioning, you start doubting, you start looking for answers that you don’t have the knowledge to diagnose," he said. "That makes you feel very helpless at times. And having a good support system has probably been the biggest thing.
"I think as much as I’ve got to be a cheerleader for everybody else, the guys on the shop floor, the guys that don’t even come to the track at the shop; they have been the cheerleaders to keep us motivated and pumped up. It’s a group. It’s a group effort; it’s not just one person leading the charge. Everybody’s rallied around each other and kept their mindsets positive."
Montoya understands the challenges Stewart faces. For him, it’s been a battle to make up ground in the Cup garage. Montoya’s second-place finish was his best result since he won the race at Sonoma in 2010.
“Good job guys, sorry about, I thought we had it," Montoya said. "So close, it was so freaking close at the end, the tires were gone, it’s coming. We had nothing there at the end. I was trying.”
His crew chief Chris Heroy was quick to remind his driver, “Juan, this time last year we were six laps down, be proud.”
Both Stewart and Montoya benefited from recent tests at the 1-mile track. As the cloud cover emerged and the track cooled down, a splash of gas, two new tires and a quick exit on the final pit stops on Lap 379 allowed their teams to contend at the finish.
For Montoya, it was just the third time he led laps and his second top-five of the season. Still, he gained just one position in the standings, to 22nd.
“We got two top fives in about a month, near misses, wins and I think they are coming," he said. "I’ve said this before: You have got to start running (and earning) top fives, top 10s, to be able to get wins, to give yourself a shot.”
And that’s precisely what Stewart accomplished with his 48th career Sprint Cup win.
He gave himself the opportunity for a wild-card position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after vaulting into the top 20 in points and scoring a win. The wild cards go to drivers between 10th and 20th in the standings with the most wins. Neither Gordon nor Aric Almirola, who are currently 11th and 12th in the standings, have a win to their credit.
"I’ve done this enough and been in the Chase enough that being in the Chase is not a novelty for me," Stewart said. "I don’t care about being in the Chase unless I have an opportunity to win the championship. To me, it’s bigger — it’s a bigger deal to me to get our program turned around to where if we have the opportunity to get in the Chase that we have — our goal is not just to make the Chase. Our goal is to be championship contenders.
"So I would rather miss the Chase and the effort to be in the process of building our program to where we have an opportunity to not just be in the Chase, but have an opportunity to win the Chase. Just making the Chase, that’s not good enough. That will not change our focus. It won’t change our direction with one win today."