Disappointed and frustrated for most of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season in a fruitless search for victory, Stewart finally won his first race of the year in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
The race was the first of 10 in the Chase and Stewart’s victory propelled him to second place in the point standings, just seven points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.
Since Stewart came into the Chicagoland race ninth in points – after sweating out several weeks of doubt that he would make it at all – finishing first was indeed a good move.
Stewart’s late-race strategy also proved to be a good move. The Geico 400 was yet another fuel mileage race. As usual, most of the competitors were doing their best to save gas, but many of them ran out anyway.
On the last lap, several of the lead-lap cars bailed, the victims of empty gas tanks. Had they been able to run the distance the final standings would have looked much different.
Stewart, however, followed his preservation strategy perfectly – another good move – and it paid off handsomely.
“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year than here at Chicago, obviously,” said Stewart, who has now won at least one race in each of the last 13 seasons, his entire Cup career. “We felt like there were three or four opportunities earlier in the year that we let some get away from us. But we have struggled.
“We’ve had a miserable year. But the last three weeks have really started coming into it. We had a really good run in Atlanta. Good solid run last week at Richmond.
“Then to come out this weekend, I don’t think Darian (Grubb, crew chief), or either one of us, thought that we had as good a car as we needed to win today. But it didn’t take long in the race to figure out that we were pretty solid.
“It was just getting the track position.”
Stewart got that position. Afterward it was a matter of saving fuel.
The final scenario was set up on lap 213, when a caution period began after debris was found on the track. The leaders pitted. Martin Truex Jr. stayed out on the track and was in first place when the race restarted.
Matt Kenseth was second and Stewart third.
Ten laps later Kenseth passed Truex Jr. to take the lead and 10 laps after that, Stewart moved into first place after dueling with Kenseth.
Truex Jr. pitted on lap 254 with just 13 laps left in the race. From that point on it was obvious none of the leaders was going to pit. The plan was to finish the distance and in some cases, it would be a huge gamble, as some crew chiefs felt their drivers would come up as much as three laps short.
“At the end you hate to have to play the fuel mileage game,” Stewart said. “But that’s just the way the caution came out. And we came in and got fuel and Darian told me we had to save a lap’s worth of fuel.
“So we had a whole run to do it. But we kept a lot of pressure on Matt and finally got by him and once we got out to a second and a half, two-second lead we could start backing off the pace and start saving fuel.
“And I felt like I’d saved enough to get us to the end. But we came off of Turn 2 after we got the checkered and the fuel pressure was down to two pounds, and it stayed there until just shortly after we picked up the checkered flag at the flag stand. We didn’t do any wild burnout or anything like that and ran out before we ever got on pit road.
“So we were closer than I wanted to be. But we didn’t have anything to lose. Where we’re at in The Chase right now, we had to press.”
Virtually everyone in the Chase still in contention for a top-10 finish pressed, too – it’s expected of them in the “playoffs.”
But it didn’t pay off all around. On the last few laps, especially the last, so many cars turned toward pit road or fell off the pace it looked like a fleet of commuters on the freeway backed up at an exit ramp.
Among those who ran out of gas were five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Kenseth.
Newman finished eighth, Johnson 10th and Kenseth 21st. All are championship contenders.
Their misfortune helped other competitors gain position at race’s end. Harvick, last week’s winner at Richmond, moved into second place.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had a good run most of the day, wound up in third place. Carl Edwards moved up to fourth and Brad Keselowski was fifth.
Earnhardt Jr., another driver concerned about making the Chase, soared from 10th in points to fifth, one position behind Kurt Busch. Edwards moved from fifth to third and Keselowski took a hike from 11th place as a “wildcard” entry to sixth.
Seventh through 12th in points are, in order, Newman, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and .
The Geico 400 certainly made an impact on the Chase. For some drivers, it was bad and for others, very good.
For Stewart it was perfect.
But it must be noted, again, that the race was the first of 10 that will determine the champion.
There is a long way to go. And a lot can happen.