With a couple of laps left in the FedEx 400, Tony Stewart’s crew chief told his driver to “use it up.”
Of course Stewart isn’t just a driver, he’s also his team’s owner. So he was of two minds about exhausting the Chevrolet he was driving.
“I’ve got to pay for this at the end of the day!” Stewart joked after winning the race with a daring outside pass of second-place finisher Juan Pablo Montoya.
Even if his car is shot, it was worth it. Stewart had gone 30 Cup races without a victory, dating back to the July event in Daytona. This gave his whole organization, which includes race teams for Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick, a shot of confidence that was desperately needed.
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“There have been a lot of dejected, depressed guys,” Stewart said. “We want them depressed and dejected (over a losing streak), but they don’t have their heads down. They fought for a solution.”
Montoya held off third-place Jeff Gordon, followed by Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. But following the race, Keselowski’s Ford failed post-race inspection, as NASCAR found the car’s front end to be sitting too low. It’s possible NASCAR will assess penalties to Keselowski on Monday or Tuesday.
This certainly wasn’t the performance Stewart anticipated. The car performed so poorly in Saturday’s final practice session – “Happy Hour” in NASCAR jargon – that Stewart doubted he could even reach the top 10.
“I honestly didn’t think we could get there from where we were in Happy Hour. I’m very happy to be wrong,” said Stewart, who didn’t have a top-five finish this season prior to Dover.
“These were not little tweaks here and there,” Stewart said of the changes crew chief Steve Addington made. “This was aborting everything we did for a new package. We have guys with the confidence to do that.”
So once Stewart got in position to challenge Montoya late, Addington made his “use it up,” comment over the radio. Stewart wasn’t sure. He worried that in attempting to overtake Montoya he might lose second place to Gordon. But with a couple laps left he went to the outside, made the pass and ended up winning decisively.
“At the end it was way too loose and I just couldn’t hold Tony off,” Montoya said. “The tires got hot and they were gone.”
Stewart’s opportunity grew from a penalty assessed against Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, who might have had the strongest car in the field. Johnson started 24th Sunday but took the lead at just about the race’s midway point and led 143 laps.
A yellow flag, caused by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin’s flat right-front tire, sent the leaders to the pits, and Montoya beat Johnson out. Johnson was penalized for what NASCAR concluded was jumping the restart – pulling ahead of Montoya before that was allowable.
Johnson had to move to the back of the field and finished 17th.
“I knew he was trying to jump the start,” Montoya said. “I backed off a bit and he wouldn’t do it.”
Johnson said this wasn’t his fault; that Montoya was driving so slowly he caused the cars to get out of line.
“I was half-throttle for the whole front stretch. And he’s not even going,” said Johnson.
“I’m not sure if his car broke or what happened. I’m running down the front stretch, waiting for him, but he never got going. It’s a bad way to lose a race because we had a car that could win.”
Stewart said while he was sympathetic to Johnson’s plight, ultimately Montoya was in the right.
“I feel bad for Jimmie, but he knows the rule that the leader has to cross the start/finish line first,” Stewart said. “If I’m Juan, I restart the race the way I want to. I do not believe he slowed the restart to an absurd pace.”