A big gamble on fuel mileage put Tony Stewart back in Victory Lane at the postponed Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland on Monday.
Stewart, winless this year, took the lead for good on lap 253 of the 267-lap race and held off the hard charging Kevin Harvick; while feather footing around the one-and-and one-half mile oval.
Just a few weeks ago the race winner acknowledged his season-long winless drought and went so far as saying he didn’t belong in the Chase. Recently his fortune has changed.
“We've had a miserable year. But the last three weeks have really started coming into it,” the winner said.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished third in a race which saw numerous contenders run out of fuel on the white flag lap.
Harvick took the points lead in NASCAR’s Chase, seven points ahead of Stewart and ten points ahead of Carl Edwards who finished fourth.
Stewart, who started 26th, took the lead for the first time on lap 237. He consulted crew chief, Darian Grubb, about fuel mileage before numerous Chase challengers spluttered and some stopped.
Ironically Stewart took himself out of Chase opening race in New Hampshire last year when he ran out of fuel.
You hate to have to play the fuel-mileage game, but that's just the way the caution came out," Stewart said. "We came in and got fuel (53-laps from the end) and Darian said we had to save a lap's worth of fuel, but we had a whole run to do it.”
Grubb explained “and the very end, the fuel mileage we knew was going to be an issue. But Tony is one of the best at saving fuel. We tried to keep him updated on who we were racing and how far we were ahead and making sure we had enough to make it to the end.”
Harvick appeared the only contender after his crew chief, Gil Martin, tried to rein him in as the laps ran down, then let him go. It was a just a little too late.
“We tried to do it a different way in the run, and when he turned me loose, I was still a little bit gun shy. I should have just listened to him. Because I was probably that one lap that I shut the engine off twice was probably the lap that I needed to catch the 14 (Stewart),” said Harvick.
Earnhardt the only other driver to make the Chase without a win this year was almost surprised at his good finish. “Basically everybody ran out. The last lap I was counting them when I went by. I don't know what place I was in to be honest with you so I didn't know where I would finish until after Steve (Letarte – his crew chief) told me.”
But I just knew we were going to get a good finish if we didn't run out of fuel. I was happy where we were. I thought we had really improved throughout the day. “
The saddest finisher was polewinner, Matt Kenseth, finished eighth then was dropped by NASCAR for an unrequested push from J.J. Yeley when he ran out of fuel on the final lap. Kenseth was dropped to 21rst.