Tony Stewart reminded NASCAR fans that he’s a serious contender for this year’s Sprint Cup championship when he scored a smart win in Sunday’s 400-mile race at the Kansas Speedway.
This was Stewart’s first win in NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Cup championship play-off. It was also his fourth win of the year during his first season as a team owner/driver. Stewart had not figured prominently in the Chase after leading the championship through most of the regular season, but his Kansas win puts him back in the thick of the battle. He’s now in fourth place, 67 points behind championship leader Mark Martin.
Stewart took the lead during the last round of pitstops when he opted to take two rather than four tyres. “We got two tyres earlier in the race and were able to go pretty quick on them,” he said. “So it was a no-brainer. The guys who took four tyres were never able to gain back their track position. [Crew chief] Darian [Grubb] and the guys got us the win. They got us track position and I was able to pick which line I wanted on the restart.”
Jeff Gordon was closing at the finish but had to settle for second. “Jeff is an awesome competitor and we come from the same camp, so I know what he’s got,” said Stewart. “We had enough [of a] lead [and] we could afford to lose a little bit of time. We didn’t want to burn the tyres off in case we had a green-white-chequer. Jeff kept us honest, that’s for sure.”
Four-time champion Gordon is seventh in the points, 103 behind Martin. “I started running out of steam toward the end,” said Gordon. “I used up the tyres trying to catch Tony. We were way off when the race started and I thought there was no way I was going to finish second. We didn’t give up. You’ve got to be real careful with this car. We tried some small adjustments to see what direction it went and at the end they made an adjustment so that the car was really good on the restart.
“It took maybe half a lap to get going, but once we got clear of the rest, the car just took off. It was really rolling through turns one and two but we just never quite got it right in turns three and four. We were catching Tony and I saw him slip a tyre a couple of times, which gave me some incentive. But he kept it real smooth and ran his line and as long as he did that we weren’t going to catch him.”
Championship leader Martin finished seventh and now leads the Chase by 18 points from defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who was a disappointing ninth in Kansas. Juan Pablo Montoya was once again a contender, finishing fourth, so he remains third in the championship – 51 points behind Martin.
“It was pretty average,” said Montoya of his race. “We couldn’t really balance the car the way we wanted. To finish fourth the way the car was handling is okay. We weren’t really happy with the car yesterday and we made a lot of adjustments and they seemed to be the right ones.”
With seven races remaining and the high-banked California Speedway next on NASCAR’s seemingly never-ending schedule, Stewart is feeling confident. “It’s the perfect scenario for us right now,” he said. “This team is doing a great job and we’ve got momentum on our side.”
But Stewart is well aware that he’s facing some very stiff competition not only from the veteran Martin and the wily Johnson, but also from the irrepressible Montoya. At this stage, the Chase remains wide open.