Tony Stewart was one of the final drivers to qualify for the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, but he left little doubt that he belonged in the field, winning his first race of the season Monday in the rain-delayed Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the first event in NASCAR's 10-race championship to determine this year's Sprint Cup champion.
Stewart, co-owner and driver for Stewart-Haas Racing, came from far back in the field, starting in 26th position, to earn his 40th career victory and his seventh win in a Chase race since that format was introduced in 2004. Sometimes it pays to wait, and Stewart is hopeful that going winless in the first 26 Sprint Cup races in 2011 will prove to be a positive omen after breaking into the win column when it counts the most, in the Chase for the Cup.
Kevin Harvick, the points leader coming into the Chase, was .941 seconds behind Stewart in second place at Chicagoland, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski as a number of cars ran out of fuel on the final lap. Harvick put a charge on late, moving up three positions in the final five laps, hoping that Stewart, who was doing everything he could to conserve enough fuel to finish, might run out of gas before reaching the checkered flag.
Had five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and his teammate, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon not run out of gas on the final lap of the 267 that constituted the race length, Hendrick Motorsports would have had all three of its Chase qualifiers finish in the top 10. As it was, Mark Martin, the fourth driver for Hendrick, came in ninth in Monday's race, while Johnson finished 12th and Gordon came in 24th.
"We've had a really rough year, so this was a great way to start off," said Stewart, who admitted that he was glad the race got delayed by a day because he was suffering from migraines on Sunday. Just four days earlier, the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet told members of the media that there seven drivers who could win the Chase this year, and he wasn't one of them.
Stewart's downplay of his chances brought a comical response from Harvick: "Counting Tony Stewart out - that's pretty funny that he counts himself out. He's won a ton of races to start off the Chase like they did today. He drove strong all day and drove from the back to the front, and led the race and won the race. So he shouldn't count himself out," he said.
Stewart was in a similar position in the first Chase race a year ago at New Hampshire. That day, the No. 14 crew gambled on fuel strategy and lost, leaving Stewart to finish 24th in the opening Chase event.
"You hate to have to play the fuel-mileage game," Stewart said after his Chicagoland victory. "We came in and got fuel (on lap 214) and Darian (crew chief Darian Gribb) said we had to save a lap's worth of fuel, but we had a whole run to do it.
"I felt like we had saved enough to get us to the end, but we came off Turn 2 after we got the checkered, and the fuel pressure was down to two pounds, he said. "It stayed there until just shortly after we picked up the checkered flag at the flagstand."
Harvick took over the Cup points lead from Kyle Busch, who dropped to eighth in the standings with a 22nd-place finish at Chicagoland. Stewart moved up to second in the current standings from tenth, seven points back of Harvick. Edwards is third, ten points back of the leader.
Edwards' fourth-place finish was his 18th top-ten finish this season for the Columbia, Mo., driver, tying him with Johnson for the most. Another Kansas City-area driver, Clint Bowyer from Emporia, Kan., came in seventh at Chicagoland, making him the only non-Chase driver in the top eight. It was only the second top-ten finish in the past 11 Cup races for the driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress Racing.
The second race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup will be next Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.