Tony Stewart crossed the finish line for his first victory as a car owner and made some rapid-fire decisions. No, he would not climb the Lowe’s Motor Speedway fence in celebration. No, he would not go to his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday to watch — or participate — in the final day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.
The only thing Stewart had in mind was a long night of celebrating the first victory for Stewart-Haas Racing on Saturday night in the $1 million All-Star event.
“I don’t even know if I’ll be conscious tomorrow,” he joked. “We’re going to start an over/under to see what time I actually wake up, and then you guys might want to start a second pool to see what time I actually climb out of bed. So, no, I am not going to Indy.
“I don’t know what day this day is actually going to end. I would like to go. And I am sure at some point tomorrow — thank God for Tivo, lets put it that way — I’ll at least see what happened at some point.”
Stewart passed Matt Kenseth with two laps to go in a thrilling final 10-lap shootout to win for the first time in 11 All-Star event starts. It was the first victory since he left Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last year, after two championships and 10 successful seasons, to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.
In just six months, Smoke has turned his new toy into a championship contender.
He came into the race second in the Sprint Cup Series standings — surprising because most people predicted a rocky first year for a driver accustomed to winning. Instead, he’s put both himself and teammate Ryan Newman (eighth in points) in position for berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Both have been closing in on Victory Lane, and Stewart won the race to give the organization its first victory dating to its 2002 debut as Haas CNC Racing.
“To get those guys in Victory Lane and to get these guys on the team that haven’t been to Victory Lane there for the first time — that means more than the million dollars does to me,” he said. “It’s that gratifying to get this group of guys to Victory Lane.”
The win was in front of co-owner Gene Haas, who was at the track for the first time since the completion of a 16-month federal prison term for tax fraud. With his team struggling to find sponsorship or success, he and then-general manager Joe Custer took a gamble in reaching out to Stewart with an offer to hand the team over and let the driver build it into a winner.
“I was so worried today, I wanted him to be proud when he got here and proud of what we’ve done and proud of what he’s been such a huge part in putting together,” Stewart said. “Everybody is giving us all the credit for this, and you’ve really got to give him credit for taking the gamble, taking the risk, and having us come be a part of this organization.”
Stewart became the second driver/owner to win the All-Star race, joining Geoff Bodine, the 1994 winner.
Stewart’s crew urged him to the climb the fence in celebration — a tradition he started several years ago — but the driver declined.
His crew climbed for him.
“I said, `No way, I am not doing this again, I am too old to be doing it,'” said Stewart, who turns 38 next week.
Kenseth was second, followed by Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.
The format was once again changed, this time to cut the 100-lap race into four segments that culminated with a 10-lap sprint to the finish. It was a nod to races past, which had a history of dramatic dash-for-the-cash finishes.
After a follow-the-leader parade for most of the first three segments, the action picked up at the drop of the flag of the final shootout. Kyle Busch used a three-wide pass to dart from fourth to first, aggressive driving that slowed the cars behind him. Denny Hamlin ran into the back of Jimmie Johnson, sending Johnson into a spin that he masterfully saved from a race-ending accident.
A caution period set up another restart, and this time Jeff Gordon raced to the front. Newman decided to enter the action with a three-wide move to the outside, and Gordon and Kyle Busch touched at least once before all three cars collided.
It sent Gordon into a spin through the grass then back up across the track, where he crashed into the outside wall to end his race.
“It’s the All-Star event. That’s just a bunch of guys racing really, really hard,” Gordon said. “I heard three-wide right at the last second.”
Kenseth eventually moved to the front, but he and Busch knew Stewart was coming quickly. Stewart was third on the final restart with five laps to go, and made several charges for the lead before finally getting past Kenseth with two laps remaining.
The late-race action moved the attention back to the track after a week spent discussing Jeremy Mayfield’s indefinite suspension for failing a random drug test.
Despite his ban from the track, Mayfield was on track property early Saturday night, complete with camera crew in tow, as he watched J.J. Yeley drive the Mayfield Motorsports entry to a 22nd-place finish in the preliminary race.
Mayfield spoke with reporters who found him in the infield, insisting his positive test was not because of illegal drug use. Instead, he said it was the combination of a prescription drug, which he would not identify, and Claritin-D, which he said he used to combat allergies at Richmond that were “really, really bad.”
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