A title Chase that had been as gentlemanly as a game of golf changed dramatically Sunday with rough racing and rapid retorts.
It is just what NASCAR fans have been awaiting.
They can thank Tony Stewart for the change in tone. With three weeks left in the season, let the excitement begin.
Stewart spiced his victory at Martinsville Speedway, which moved him to second in the season standings, eight points behind leader Carl Edwards, by proclaiming in Victory Lane: “(Edwards) better be worried. That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.”
“He’s wound up. He won the race. We’ll see what happens (this week) at Texas.”
Stewart’s bravado was not fueled by adrenaline. He was still boasting an hour after his third victory in the Chase. He also won at Chicago and New Hampshire.
“My adrenaline has worn off, and he better not sleep too long the next three weeks,” Stewart said. “It’s not disrespect to him. We’ve had one of those up-and-down years. I feel like our mindset these next three weeks is we’ve been nice all year to a lot of guys and given guys a lot of breaks. We’re cashing tickets in these next three weeks.”
It’s understandable that Stewart and Edwards were footloose – both had spent much of the race mired in the back after a myriad of problems. Stewart once gave up the lead in the last 100 laps to pit, thinking he had a tire going down. Edwards, who finished ninth, twice went a lap down.
“It was a long day for sure,” Stewart said.
He fought the car’s handling, running 20th with 300 laps to go. He was still struggling with 150 laps left as he raced leader Denny Hamlin to stay on the lead lap. They ran side-by-side for about five laps before Hamlin backed away, saying on his radio: “All right, I’m losing my patience.”
A caution came out moments later, keeping Stewart on the lead lap. With the help of pit strategy, he worked his way into the lead on lap 413, passing Kevin Harvick after a restart. Another accident slowed the field and Stewart radioed crew chief Darian Grubb that he thought he had a tire going down. He gave up the lead on lap 416 to pit.
He was wrong. His tires were fine. Instead, he gave up track position and restarted 21st.
“I’m sorry, guys,’’ Stewart radioed. “I swore the left front was going down.”
He climbed steadily through the field, took advantage of pit strategy and was aided by a number of late cautions, including a spin by Brian Vickers after he ran into the back of Matt Kenseth in retaliation for an earlier incident. That put Stewart beside race leader Jimmie Johnson for the final restart.
It was not what Johnson wanted to see.
“When you’re on the race track and someone wrongs you, you have some decisions to make in how you handle that,” Johnson said with a hint toward Vickers. “I don’t agree with the way things were handled at the end. Tony Stewart is sitting in Victory Lane smiling and he’s real happy it turned out that way.”
Stewart slipped by. Johnson showed some civility. With Stewart racing for a title, and having raced Johnson clean before, Johnson said he didn’t want to be overzealous.
“Could Jimmie (have) just hauled it off in the corner … to try to take us down?” Stewart said. “He could have done that to anybody. He didn’t do that to us. I think he knows we respect him and have that level of respect.”
It was a rare sight on a day when drivers sought retribution for various wrecks. Jamie McMurray tried to wreck Vickers under caution after contact with him sent McMurray into the wall. Vickers sought Kenseth at the end.
Just as Stewart avoided those, so did Edwards on what was a rocky day. A week after spending most of the day at Talladega riding in the back to avoid trouble, Edwards was in the back most of the day Sunday. This time, it was because of the car’s performance.
“That’s just a gift to finish ninth,” he said.
Edwards twice was lapped by the leader, but got his lap back after cautions. He also had a lugnut problem on one stop that dropped him deep in the field, and another time fended off a NASCAR penalty.
Series officials issued a black flag and ordered him to the pits for passing before a restart, but his team argued they were following NASCAR’s instructions to move into proper position. The penalty was rescinded.
Still, Edwards struggled with his attitude.
“I became all right with the fact we were going to finish 20th to 25th,” he said. “I was already thinking about Texas, everything we were going to do. My guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate. Just glad we could move on.”
As the series heads to Texas, fans will be wondering what else Stewart will have to say.