CUP: Smoke Gets In Johnson’s Eyes
Written by: Mike Hembree
Date: 06/02/2013 - 04:01 PM
Location: Dover, DE
FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks
Points After Dover
Jimmie Johnson made a big mistake, and Tony Stewart made a familiar charge.The result in Sunday’s FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks was Stewart’s first win in what has been a tough Sprint Cup season for the former champion.
NASCAR ruled that Johnson jumped the race’s final restart with 19 laps to go, and he went from the lead to pit road to serve a pass-through penalty. That left the battle for the win to Juan Pablo Montoya, who was looking for his first Cup oval-track win, and Stewart, who was looking for his first top five of the year.
Montoya was the leader on the outside on the restart, and NASCAR said the Johnson started too soon from position two on the inside. Johnson surged to the lead but had to give it up to Montoya to serve the penalty.
Stewart, who had not led a lap, gained steadily on Montoya and passed him with three laps to go to take the lead for good.
Montoya finished second, and Jeff Gordon was third.
“Man, it’s been such a tough year,” Stewart said. “We’ve let them (fans) down for a long time. Hopefully, we’ll start building that momentum.”
The win was large in many ways for Stewart. He finally broke through the ice curtain to get his first victory of 2013, a win that’s sure to boost confidence in a Stewart-Haas Racing team that had seemed to be drifting. Stewart moved from 20th to 16th in points and, with the win, dramatically improved his chances of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Stewart said his car wasn’t strong Friday and that the team made a big turnaround Sunday.
“These are the days that mean more to me, going from where we were Friday than having a weekend where we show up quickest in practice and sit on pole and everything goes right all weekend,” he said. “It’s much harder to do it like we had to over the last 48 hours.
“This was no layup. It wasn’t a little tweak here and a little tweak there. This was going and saying, ‘OK, we may have to abort everything we’re doing to come up with a new package.’ ”
Stewart said the team has focused on a turnaround.
“Our guys have never given up,” he said. “There have been a lot of dejected and disappointed guys all year, but that’s why we want them at Stewart-Haas. The way we’ve been running, we want them to be disappointed and dejected. But they’re all wanting to find a solution. The guys don’t quit and refuse to give up.”
The face of the race changed significantly on lap 378 when Denny Hamlin’s car crashed into the second-turn wall after a front tire exploded. Johnson had a comfortable lead at that point, but the caution bunched the field.
After pit stops, Montoya led Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Stewart and Brad Keselowski to the green flag.
After the race, Johnson, who finished 17th but kept the series point lead, disagreed with NASCAR’s call.
“I was half-throttle for the whole frontstretch,” Johnson said. “At some point, I’ve got to go. He (Montoya) is not even going. I’m not sure if his car broke or it’s off power. I’m running half-throttle down the stretch waiting for him, and he’s not coming. It’s a bummer. We certainly had the winning car.”
Stewart, whose top seasonal finish entering the race was a seventh last week at Charlotte, didn’t break into the top 10 Sunday until the final 30 laps. At that point, his car was the strongest it had been.
The race’s strangest crash occurred on lap 301 when Ryan Newman, teammate of the winner, bumped David Gilliland into a spin, and Gilliland’s car dropped down the track and into Newman, sending both cars to the garage. Gilliland, normally mild-mannered, approached Newman’s car and engaged him in an animated conversation about the incident.
Later, Gilliland told reporters he “got wrecked” and that Newman, who had been racing Gilliland hard for several laps, was too aggressive.
A few laps after the Gilliland-Newman incident, Kasey Kahne, running eighth, slipped and spun into the wall in turn two, bringing out the day’s sixth caution.
Matt Kenseth, in pursuit of what would have been a fourth seasonal victory, had a strong car in the first half of the race but fell victim to another in a perplexing series of Toyota engine problems. Kenseth was leading the race on lap 159 when his engine belched smoke, ending his day. He led 29 laps.
The race was eerily reminiscent of the Daytona 500 for Kenseth. He led 86 (of 200) laps in that race but finished 37th after engine trouble.
Martin Truex Jr. also had a potent Toyota Sunday, but he also parked with an engine issue.
After the race, NASCAR said Keselowski’s Ford had been measured as too low in the front and that any related penalties will be considered early this week.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.