There was a day when Tony Stewart was a big force at Dover International Speedway. He had 11 top-10 finishes in his first 12 races at the Monster Mile, nine of which were in the top five. Two of those were wins.
However, the bulk of that was more than a decade ago, spanning 1999 to 2004. Since then, things have been almost the exact opposite – one top-five finish in 16 races, and an average finishing position of 20.75. In fact, he hadn't finished better than 20th in five consecutive Dover races.
But the past all came roaring back for Stewart on Sunday, June 2. He ran down Juan Pablo Montoya with three laps to go and held on to win the "FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks" NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, his first win at the Monster Mile since sweeping both races 13 years ago, in 2000. It was so long ago that he was driving a Pontiac at the time.
"If somebody would have told me it was going to be that way yesterday I would have told them they were crazy," Stewart said. "This thing was not a car that could win the race. Just great pit strategy at the end. [Crew Chief] Steve Addington made a great call there that last caution and gave us the opportunity to race for it up there.
"It didn't seem like the guys that took four tires had a huge advantage taking off there. We had a car that was solid, we just never got track position to get in clean air. It felt a lot better up front."
The last chapter of the race started with 25 laps remaining when pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, running sixth at the time, blew a right-front tire and slammed the wall in Turn 2. That interrupted about 20 crew chiefs who had been spending the previous few minutes furiously working fuel numbers to see if they could make it to the finish on green. But Hamlin's mishap rendered those moot, and set up a sprint to the finish.
As is the case with many NASCAR races, Stewart was the beneficiary of luck. And as is the case with luck in NASCAR, what's good luck for one driver is bad luck for another. This time, it was Jimmie Johnson, who has had his share of good luck at Dover, drawing the bad-luck side of the card.
Jump back quickly to Friday, when Johnson had an uncharacteristic mistake during his qualifying lap that resulted in him starting 24th, thus having to choose a less-than-ideal pit stall – a definite disadvantage at Dover, and a definite change from where Johnson usually pits at the tail end of pit road. This time, Johnson was pitting fifth from the beginning of pit road.
Now back to Sunday, where Johnson was leading Montoya as the field came down pit road following Hamlin's mishap. But Montoya, pitting 10 stalls further down, beat Johnson out of the pits by about a foot. That gave Montoya the lead heading to the green flag.
Page 2 of 3 - For a moment, it looked like it didn't matter. Johnson had an extremely strong restart, leaving Montoya fairly far behind. But it turned out to be too good. NASCAR ruled Johnson had jumped the restart, and ordered a pass-through penalty with 18 laps remaining. Johnson protested over the radio, asking NASCAR to reconsider, but eventually came through the pits. He finished 17th.
"I was half-throttle for the whole front stretch," Johnson said. "And at some point, I gotta go. I'm not sure if his car broke or if he's off power or spun the tires. I'm running half-throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him and he never comes. So at that point, we got back going. And then we got called on it. So, a bummer way to lose a race."
The circumstances left Montoya in the lead, with Stewart chasing, and Stewart simply worked away at Montoya from there. He reduced the lead to just over half a second with eight laps remaining, and finally made the winning pass on the outside five laps later in Turn 3.
In reversing his Dover luck, Stewart surprised even himself. He figured the day was going to be just another addition to their list of tough times at the Monster Mile.
"Yesterday when we finished happy hour, I was preparing for a very long day today," he said. "I wasn't prepared to be sitting here. I knew that they stayed late and were working, but I honestly didn't think we could get there from where we ended happy hour yesterday. But I'm proud to sit here and say I was very wrong. That's what makes me really proud of [Addington] and Greg Zippadelli] and what they've done.
"This was no layup. This was really sitting down and saying we may have to abort everything we're doing to come up with a new package. To have the ability to come up with that overnight, that speaks volumes to me as an owner and a driver both. It shouldn't be just three people up here, it should be about 200 sitting behind us now. Our guys have never given up."
The race proceeded rather quickly through the first 300 laps, with only four cautions – all for either debris or fluid on the track. For a while, it looked like Johnson was going to defy all kinds of odds to pick up what would have been a record-breaking eighth win at Dover – he started 24th and fell a lap down, but drove all the way back to take the lead at lap 206. He led for 30 laps, and then after briefly letting it go he led another 41 laps from 239 to 279 and then 20 more from 281 to 300.
But it was the final 100 miles that really made the race, starting on lap 301 when Ryan Newman got into David Gilliland in Turn 2. The incident dumped both drivers, and Gilliland was not happy about it. He informed Newman of such, getting out of his car and proceeding to Newman's window. Newman then got out of his car and the conversation continued briefly – and remarkably civilly – before the drivers went their separate ways, with Gilliland obviously still not happy.
Page 3 of 3 - Then on lap 318, Kasey Kahne was driving on his own through Turn 2 when his tail end decided it would get ahead of the game and he spun out. Since that happened with 80 laps remaining, it opened the door for all sorts of pit strategies. Some took a full pit stop, while others took two tires. Some didn't come in at all – Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon both stayed out to take the top two spots off the restart.
Johnson eventually jumped back into the lead on lap 355. As the laps started ticking away, that's when fuel started to become a concern. But when Hamlin hit the wall, everyone was able to take care of those concerns and set up for the big finish.
Two Toyota drivers were also the victims of hard luck. Matt Kenseth was leading when his engine let go on lap 156. Then on lap 276, Martin Truex, Jr. was running third when he blew up, doing so just a few laps after telling his team he thought they could win the race.
Jeff Gordon ran third, while Kyle Busch finished fourth and Brad Keselowski fifth. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 10.
The race ran at an average speed of 123.172 mph and was slowed by seven cautions for 32 laps. There were 21 lead changes among 11 drivers.
Johnson remains on top in the points race, 30 ahead of Carl Edwards. Bowyer is third, followed by Kenseth, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Paul Menard. Jeff Gordon and Aric Almirola sit in the wild card spots.