He has not given up throughout the season so far, but victory had eluded Tony Stewart all year. That denial was not the result of any lacking on the part of the driver or his team. But this Labor Day weekend race would be the breakthrough as he climbed to fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points heading into the last race before the Chase. The points were not a concern as he was already close to being locked into the Chase, but the win added those all important 10 bonus points.
“The first run tonight, we were a little off, but the leaders could not get away.” said Stewart. “I struggled on restarts all night, but the pit crew deserves all the credit tonight.” “we had top 5 and top 10 cars all year,” explained Stewarts crew chief Darien Grubb, “But tonight the whole program came together.”
Following Stewart across the line were Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch in fifth. “I felt we had a car as good or better than we have had all season,” said Carl Edwards, “really for maybe a season and a half. I’m really proud of my guys, the last pit stop was spectacular. That’s probably the best pit stop I’ve ever had.” Jimmie Johnson in a post race interview expressed real confidence , “You know, I think that the run where the 9, the 99 and myself were running three wide basically, if I could have got the lead at that point, I would have checked out and if there were no cautions, I think I would have won.”
Denny Hamlin brought the field to the green flag with Ryan Newman on the outside. They battled hard, but Hamlin held off Newman until lap 16 when the #39 US Army car moved out front. But Newman’s run was short changed just 9 laps later as Hamlin raced on by to retake the lead. Newman was not Hamlin’s only concern as Tony Stewart slid past Hamlin for the lead on lap 52. The Stewart – Hamlin battle would continue over the next 75 laps as the two former teammates would swap the lead nine times.
The race would have a long green flag run leading up to the first caution for debris on lap 134. On the restart, it was Carl Edwards charging hard getting passed Hamlin for the lead on lap 141. The second caution would follow just four laps later as a smoking #11 car would come spinning down the front stretch. Bad luck would prevail for Hamlin as an expired engine would bring his night to an end. The caution led to a round of pit stops by the leaders where Tony Stewart retook the lead coming off pit road on lap 148.
The green flag that flew on lap 152 would be short lived as Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman made contact coming of turn four. As Biffle spun down off the turn, Elliott Sadler was unable to clear Biffle. Sadler was unable to move his car and the incident ended his night. Biffle would head straight for the garage for major repairs. Newman pitted several times during the 9 lap caution to make repairs. Those efforts by the #39 crew kept their driver on the lead lap.
The race went back green on lap 161 with Stewart still out front, but it seemed like Jimmie Johnson but suddenly came to life as he surged past Stewart on lap 162 to lead the race for the first time. Stewart was not to settle for that as he dogged Johnson for the next 8 laps when he retook the lead on lap 170. Stewart would stay out front until pit stops on lap 250, where Carl Edwards would beat Stewart off pit road for the lead. As the leaders pitted later, Kurt Busch gambles and stays out hoping for a caution as he takes the lead on lap 273. He would fight hard, but17 laps later, Kasey Kahne would finally get by for the lead.
The caution would fly again on lap 295 as Brad Keselowski would hit the wall in turn two, bringing another round of pit stops where Carl Edwards would once again win the race off pit road. As he had done so many times this night, the #14 of Stewart was not to be denied as he retook the lead on lap 301 for the final time.
At the end of the night, ten of the top 12 contenders are locked into the Chase heading to Richmond. Only Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle have a mathematical possibility of being eliminated, but the chances for either of them to miss is extremely rare. After the race, Matt Kenseth commented on the Chase lock in when he said, “It’s good to be locked in, that’s what the goal at the beginning of the season. But we really need to work on our program now to get better for the Chase.”