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Stewart's win not his usual Cup fare
The self-proclaimed "people’s champion" celebrated his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win of the season by taking half of a Polish victory lap — in honor of the late Alan Kulwicki — around Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
And it was well earned.
Stewart claimed the lead from Jimmie Johnson for the first time on Lap 133. But later, when Stewart slid below the apron to take the then-leading cars of Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski three wide on the restart on Lap 234, the defending Sprint Cup champion proved he would not be denied.
Stewart went on to hold off Johnson by 0.461 seconds at the end for his sixth victory in 13 races. Points leader Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five.
"Man, I'm just finally glad to win one here," Stewart said. "We were so close last year and had a dominant car. I'm not sure we had the dominant car, but we had an awful fast Chevy.
"Just glad to finally, finally get one at Vegas. We have to win ourselves a Southern 500 (at Darlington Raceway)."
Despite three additional cautions, Stewart was masterful on restarts and held the point for his first victory at LVMS and 45th career Sprint Cup win overall. The three-time Cup champion has never won a race this early in the season, and only three of his career wins have come in the opening 10 races. However, Stewart’s frustration was evident as he accused both Johnson and Keselowski of "rolling the start."
"Every time the caution came out, I'm (thinking), 'Not again,'" said Stewart, who asked his team to express his displeasure to NASCAR. "You wonder, 'How many times you are going to give them a chance at it on a restart there, and when are they going to be able to capitalize on us?' But that was our strong suit today. We were really strong on the restarts.
"Just proud of the Hendrick engine department; making great steam with it. That was the key to our restarts was the power that we had. We could go without spinning the tires, and we could get a really good lead into Turn 1, and just haul butt down the backstretch with this Hendrick horsepower."
Stewart’s first win with his new crew chief, Steve Addington, comes one week after his previous pit boss, Darian Grubb, led Denny Hamlin to Victory Lane. Although Stewart and Addington have been buddies since their Joe Gibbs Racing days, the driver says his new crew chief has "been pretty nervous to start with here."
"But he's doing an awesome job," Stewart added. "I didn't even think about it, the way he said it: We win the championship, and it is hard to come into a team after they've won a championship like that. I don't know that there are too many guys other than a guy like Steve Addington that could step into a role and succeed Darian Grubb and do the job he is doing.
"Really proud of Steve. Really proud of our guys. I mean, it is the same guys that we had last year, just throwing in a little bit different leadership. We had a great leader with Darian, and I miss him, but I'm proud of our new leader, Steve."
Stewart’s victory vaulted the No. 14 team from 15th to seventh in the standings.
Glimmer of hope
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led more laps (70) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway than he did in all 36 races last year and delivered a 10th-place finish Sunday.
Earnhardt dominated the first segment of the race. But the team opted to take four tires on its first stop when most of the lead lap opted for two, and Earnhardt got buried in traffic, which upset the handling of his car.
"Well, we didn't keep up with the racetrack," Earnhardt said. "The car was really fast at the start of the race. I didn't give that information to (crew chief) Steve (Letarte). I don't think I gave him a good enough understanding of where our race car was, even though it was really fast.
"The track got really tight on us at the end of the race. Something that I should have had a handle on, and should have known better, and should have not let happen. We just didn't have our adjustments going throughout the day to keep up with the track as it tightened up on us."
On Sunday, Earnhardt posted his fourth top-10 in the last five races at LVMS and moved from fifth to fourth in the points standings. Earnhardt continues to lead the Hendrick cars in the points.
"We had good speed," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully, we can keep bringing cars like that to the racetrack and we will get some opportunities to win.
"This is a tough series. When you get back in traffic, it gets very competitive. We'll be at it in Bristol, trying to get another one."
Bold moves gone bad
With 34 laps remaining in the race, Keselowski and Bowyer opted to stay on the racetrack while the other cars on the lead lap elected to top off for fuel.
Although it would appear that the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge could conserve enough fuel to go the distance, a stark miscalculation on the team’s part led to Keselowski stalling out 18 laps later. After lining up second for the restart following the sixth caution on Lap 251, Keselowski just dropped through the field entering Turn 1.
"I'm out of fuel, I'm out of fuel," Keselowski cried. "“It's shutting off."
Keselowski coasted to pit road. He finished 32nd, eight laps down.
2: Active tracks remaining where Tony Stewart has yet to win — Darlington and Kentucky
14: Wins for team owner Gene Haas since teaming up with Tony Stewart in 2009
238: Races since Greg Biffle led the Sprint Cup points
While Jimmie Johnson left the name-calling to Tony Stewart, who used a choice word to describe the five-time champion when he laid back on the start, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet said he was just defending his territory.
"I don't know about laying back," said Johnson, who finished second. "It's his prerogative to go as fast as he wants to go. He's the leader setting the pace. Normally you got to keep speed with the pace car itself. The pace car is pulling away from us, so I'm just going as fast as he is right alongside of him.
"It would be foolish of me to be tire to tire with him; then he could really take advantage of me because my line of sight, I'm not able to see his race car. It's pretty much (a) standard deal to sit back on the door number so you have a line of sight on the car that's the leader so that you can time it with them."