Tony Stewart swung past Juan Pablo Montoya on the high side with three laps to go and won the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover after Jimmie Johnson was penalized for jumping the race's final restart.
Where the heck did Stewart, a driver who has been struggling all season, come from? We'll get to that in a moment. First, that fateful restart.
After Montoya beat Johnson out of the pits before that last restart with 19 laps to go, he was the race leader and chose the high line coming to the green flag. Johnson on the inside, sprinted ahead as the two drove through the restart box that demarcates the zone where the leader is supposed to accelerate through the green flag.
By the time the two got to the start/finish line, Johnson was multiple car lengths ahead of Montoya. Did Montoya spin his tires? Did Johnson jump the restart? Even if Montoya did the former, NASCAR ruled that Johnson did the latter, and he was forced to pit for a pass-through penalty from the race lead with 16 laps to go.
"No, I was half-throttle for the whole frontstretch," Johnson said while watching the replay after the race. "And at some point, I gotta go. And in this situation NASCAR has the judgement to decide if you jumped the start or not and -- he's not even going. I'm not sure if his car broke or he's off power, spun the tires, I don't know. So I'm running half throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him and he never comes."
"So at that point, we got back going, (crew chief Chad Knaus) even told me on the radio that something had happened and I should take off and don't worry about it and then we were called on it."
For NASCAR, it was an easy call. From USA Today:
"He left early and he didn't give it back like we tell them all the time when this type of thing comes up," Pemberton said. "It's pretty cut and dry. … That was an easy call. Very easy call."
Starting 24th, Johnson nearly went a lap down early in the race. But from then on he quickly worked his way through the field and led for a race-high 147 laps. Johnson, a seven-time Dover winner, was so good in the late stages of the race that after he drove away from Montoya, his chances of being caught by Montoya or anyone else were slim-to-none. (Johnson ended up 17th.)
But the penalty changed all of that. With Johnson exiting the track to serve his pass-through, the lead was handed over to Montoya with Stewart almost a second back in second. The race was suddenly between a driver who has had fast cars and circumstances go against him all season looking for the first oval win of his career and a three-time Cup Series champion mired in 20th in the standings looking not only for his first win of the season, but simply his first top five.
Stewart started two spots ahead of Johnson in 22nd and made his way through the field much slower than the No. 48 car. He broke into the top 10 with 100 laps to go and vaulted from the back of the top 10 to fourth before the final restart thanks to a two-tire pit stop.
As the laps ticked down, Stewart started catching Montoya consistently in the middle of turns 3 and 4. Montoya, refusing to give Stewart the low line, stayed glued to the bottom of the track. As the two, with Jeff Gordon in tow, took the signal for three laps to go, Stewart jumped to the high side in turns one and two and pulled alongside, clearing Montoya as they entered 3 and 4 again.
"(Crew chief Steve) Addington's pit strategy gave us the opportunity there at the end," Stewart said. "It's pretty cool. There's not many times when you get to outrace Juan Montoya -- he figured out where I was gaining ground and he made the adjustment and got going there and so we had to move around again and found a little something on the top there."
Yes, it was a hot day at Dover on Sunday, and the cliches about Stewart's prowess in the warm weather were already flowing as soon as the checkered flag fell. Those are probably a bit premature, though Stewart's Chase chances are now much stronger; with the win, he vaulted up to 16th in the standings.