In a day marred by an unusual number of caution laps, the seventh race in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup came down to a thrilling pass by Tony Stewart over Jimmie Johnson on a restart with only three laps remaining that ending up giving Stewart his third Chase win on Sunday and moved him within single digits of Carl Edwards, the leader in the standings.
Johnson kept his hopes alive for a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, coming in second behind Stewart. Third place went to Jeff Gordon, in his 650th Sprint Cup start, followed by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., was able to hold on to his lead in the Chase standings with a ninth place finish in the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, but his No. 99 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing appeared to be in big trouble for a good part of the 500-lap race after starting on the pole alongside teammate Matt Kenseth. The two Roush drivers were awarded the top two starting positions because of their place in the standings after rain washed out Saturday's qualifying session.
After the race, Stewart, driver and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, said of Edwards, "He'd better be worried, that's all I can say. He's not going to have an easy three weeks."
Edwards was able to retain the race lead for the first 30 laps and remain in the top ten through the first 100 laps, but his troubles started when tire problems set in forcing the No. 99 car farther back in the field as the race progressed. In fact, Edwards twice fell off the lead lap. About midway through the race at Martinsville, both Edwards and Stewart were back in the pack at 24th and 21st, respectively.
There were nine caution flags through the first half of the race as a result of cars colliding and spinouts, then an extended green-flag run of 97 laps.
Stewart was still in 23rd position on the track with 80 laps to go. Three more caution flags came out between laps 361 and 408. During those cautions, Stewart and Harvick were able to move to the front of the field, and the 12th caution, on lap 408, allowed Edwards to get back on the lead lap with a free pass as the highest-scored car one lap down.
Just a few laps after gaining the lead, one of Stewart's tires went flat, sending him back in the pack, again. Stewart worked his way from 23rd place back to 10th in the No. 14 Chevrolet with 50 laps to go, and he was up to fifth 10 laps later. Johnson had a fairly sizeable lead when with under 10 laps remaining in the race when Brian Vickers spun into the outer barrier after letting the No. 17 Ford car driven by Matt Kenseth know he wasn't happy with him. That brought out the final caution flag on the afternoon, the 18th overall.
Johnson brought the field back to green with three laps to go. Stewart caught and overtook Johnson's No, 48 car with just under two laps to go and held off the five-time defending champion to the checkered flag. It was Stewart's 42nd Sprint Cup victory. Stewart moved up two spots in the Chase standings, moving ahead of Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, who finished 31st and 17th at Martinsville.
It all comes down now to the final three Chase races - at Texas Motor Speedway next Sunday, followed by Phoenix International Raceway and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway - with the leader Edwards, Stewart, Harvick, Keselowski and Kenseth with the best chance of taking home the championship. Defending champion Johnson still has an outside chance, 43 points back of Edwards, but the odds are not in his favor.
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