After Tony Stewart reeled off his third NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup win and vaulted to second in the standings, eight points behind Carl Edwards, he fired the first shot.
“Carl Edwards had better be real worried,” Smoke snarked after his win at Martinsville Speedway. “That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”
If the next three races were a marathon, it would be game over for Stewart. Edwards could run circles around the 40-year-old poster boy for Burger King and not break a sweat.
But this is racing.
While athleticism certainly counts for something when it comes to endurance in a 500-mile race, Stewart, a two-time NASCAR champion, has proven during his 13 years of muscling stock cars to 42 victories that being physically fit behind the wheel doesn’t mean all that.
On Sunday, Stewart credited “determination” with being the catalyst to his valiant comeback.
Stewart took the lead early on Lap 32 when the team elected to stay out on the track during a caution to earn bonus points. But just before Lap 361, he was in jeopardy of going a lap down as race leader Denny Hamlin attempted every which way to pass him. Despite contact between the two former teammates, Stewart held his ground until the caution saved him.
“(Expletive) that’s hard," Stewart said, sounding spent over the radio. "(Spotter) Bob (Jeffrey), tell him I’m sorry but I have to race the (expletive) out of him.”
Later Stewart would recall how both his crew chief Darian Grubb and Jeffrey reminded him before the race “to not be so nice today."
But Stewart put the advice to good use.
After the workout from Hamlin, Stewart lit it up. He battled from 15th to first in the next 45 laps, but while racing with Kevin Harvick for the lead on the Lap 413 restart, the drivers made contact and Stewart felt he had a left rear tire going down.
Once again, Stewart was forced to the back. He restarted 21st but with the action slowed through five additional cautions, including a gift from Brian Vickers, who made a feeble attempt at dumping Matt Kenseth but only eliminated himself, Stewart found himself lining up against Jimmie Johnson for a green-white-checkered dash to the finish.
“I don’t think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside so, just determination,” Stewart said. “I don’t think we had the best race car today by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew to get it as good as they can get it, I was pretty mad all day, but I was the only guy who didn’t get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that.”
Although his fence climbing days appear to be over, Stewart remained fired up long after the other competitors had left the track and his “adrenaline (had) worn off.” As the points tumbled following a race laced with 18 cautions, twisted sheet metal and tossed hopes, Stewart reinforced his earlier threats to Edwards.
“He better not sleep too long the next three weeks,” Stewart said. “It’s no disrespect to him. He’s a great competitor, a great guy. He’s with a great organization that deserves their shot at that championship, too.
“We’ve had one of those up-and-down years and we’re having a run in the Chase now where we’re hungry. We’re hungry for this. I feel like our mindset into these next three weeks, we’ve been nice all year to a lot of guys, given a lot of breaks. We’re cashing tickets in these next three weeks.”
One thing Edwards can be sure of is if Stewart is hungry and he’s cashing tickets — particularly meal tickets — he better get out of his way whether it’s in the drive-thru line or on the way to Victory Lane.
Up in smoke
Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski watched their title hopes evaporate on Sunday.
For 464 laps at Martinsville, Kenseth appeared to be destined to leave the track with a top-10 finish.
His luck changed when he was caught up in a multicar wreck involving Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Joey Logano. The demolition derby triggered the 16th caution on Lap 465.
After 20 laps, the No. 17 Ford limped back to action in 31st place, made a lap, then returned to pit road before coming back to action. Kenseth soldiered around the track attempting to earn as many points as possible until Brian Vickers retaliated with seven laps remaining in the race.
The payback came after Kenseth punted Vickers on Lap 458 for holding him up on the track.
“Brian just kept hitting me in the door,” Kenseth said. “I mean, we’re at Martinsville and I gave him the bottom. Obviously, I’m not gonna roll over and let him go with 40 to go or whatever it was and he just kept driving in harder and harder and he slammed me in the door at least five times and just ran me up in the marbles and I was just tired of it, so I spun him out.
“I don’t know how you can’t pass somebody here without running into him every single time when he gives you the bottom and the fastest lane, but obviously he couldn’t and I was trying to get every position I could at the end of the race.”
Kenseth finished 31st and sank three positions to fifth in the standings, 36 points behind Carl Edwards.
While Vickers’ actions proved pesky on Sunday, Kenseth acknowledged his greatest problem throughout the day was restarts on old tires.
“Our car would not restart fast,” Kenseth said. “I really don’t know why, we would just be extremely loose and I just couldn’t get going. We were really falling back in that run. After that I thought maybe we were gonna be okay and when I got under the 18 (of Kyle Busch) there … I honestly don’t know what happened. I thought I left him enough room, so I don’t know if I slid up into him or what happened, but somehow we hit off of (Turn) 2 and it cut my tire.”
“Of course, that ruined my day, along with his and whoever else got unfortunately collected in that mess.”
While Busch had an equally devastating day after finishing 27th as part of that “mess," Keselowski was running eighth when he was collected in an altercation between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin on the final restart. Hamlin spun Keselowski’s No. 2 Dodge in Turn 2 as the field headed for the white flag. Keselowski finished 17th and dropped to fourth in the standings and he lost nine points to Edwards in the process.
“That’s racing on these short tracks,” Keselowski said. “It will come back around for the Miller Lite Dodge team. We got some good racing in the middle section of the race, got the good lanes that we needed, but at the end we just didn’t catch a break. We ended up on the outside for the last few restarts and that wasn’t the place to be.
“That’s just this style of racing. You can’t control your own fate. The car came to us, the track came to us. The guys had a good plan. Our Dodge was a top-10 car. We came up a few laps short.”
9: Career wins in Chase races by Stewart, second only to Jimmie Johnson’s 20 playoff victories.
18: Top 10s for Johnson at Martinsville in 20 career starts.
18 cautions: Three short of the track record.
31: Top-10 finishes for Jeff Gordon at Martinsville in 38 races.
Crew chief Chad Knaus to Jimmie Johnson after Brian Vickers plowed into Matt Kenseth to draw the 18th caution, which erased Johnson’s lead over Tony Stewart:
"You can thank Vickers for that … being a jackass."