Stewart earns first win of the year at Chicagoland
By By CHRIS JENKINS, AP Sports Writer
JOLIET, Ill. — Tony Stewart finally broke through for his first victory of the season, holding off Matt Kenseth on several late-race restarts Sunday to win the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Stewart, who has spent this week in a high-profile feud with teammate Denny Hamlin, climbed the frontstretch fence in celebration, but seemed more relieved than elated by the victory.
Stewart broke a 20-race winless streak dating to last season thanks in part to a hard crash by contender Jimmie Johnson, who was running second behind Stewart with 45 laps left when his tire went flat.
Johnson walked away from the crash into the wall without any serious injuries beyond a sore elbow, but it left his car mangled and ruined his chance at a victory.
The accident jumbled pit strategies for the race leaders, most of whom only needed a splash of fuel to make it to the end when they pitted with 40 laps left.
After a quick pit stop, Stewart came out of the pits with the lead, ahead of Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick. Kenseth pulled side-by-side to challenge Stewart on the restart, but Stewart held him off until another caution flag came out for a crash by J.J. Yeley 20 laps later.
Kenseth said that was his ‘‘one shot’’ to get past Stewart — but he nearly lost control of his car while making the move, and backed off to finish second.
Kenseth was glued to Stewart’s back bumper when the race restarted with 18 laps to go — and Joe Nemechek crashed two laps later, forcing Stewart to fend off the field on yet another late restart.
But Stewart squirted away on the final restart with 12 laps to go, and Kenseth wasn’t able to mount another challenge in the closing laps.
Kenseth held off a charge from teammate Carl Edwards to finish second. Edwards finished third, followed by Kevin Harvick and pole-sitter Casey Mears.
With two cars in the top three on Sunday, it was another step forward in what has been an off year for the Roush-Fenway team.
What was shaping up as a good day for Dale Earnhardt Inc. quickly fell apart in the final stages of the race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running third with 58 laps to go when he fell off the pace with an apparent power steering failure — remarking over his in-car radio how ‘‘funny’’ it was that he couldn’t really steer his car.
Teammate Martin Truex Jr., who also had been running in the top 10, pulled off the track with engine problems three laps later and rolled back into the garage.
Earnhardt stayed on the track, but dropped out of the top 10 and finished 19th.
Sunday’s victory broke a 20-race winless streak for Stewart, whose last victory came Nov. 5, 2006, at Texas Motor Speedway.
Stewart did win two non-points-paying events leading up to the season-opening Daytona 500 this year, and certainly has had his chances to win races this year at Atlanta, Bristol, Phoenix and Charlotte.
Meanwhile, Hendrick Motorsports’ dominance in the first half of the season seems to be fading slightly. Hendrick drivers Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears won 10 of the first 14 races. But Hendrick has been shut out of victory lane for the past five races.
Mears finished fifth, the highest-finishing Hendrick car.
It was a particularly rough day for Johnson, who banged his elbow in the crash.