Sure leading laps and leading the most laps pay off in the form of bonus points in NASCAR, but when it comes to winning races, it only matters who’s up front at the end. With pit strategy, Tony Stewart, Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon got up front to fight for the top positions in the finishing order. Stewart then took the lead for the first time with three laps to go and drove on to the win.
“(Crew chief Steve) Addington’s pit strategy gave us an opportunity there at the end,” Stewart said in victory lane.
The victory was not only Stewart’s first win of the season, it was also his first top-five of the year, 13 races into the schedule.
“It’s been such a tough year,” Stewart said. “Hopefully today, we’ll start to build that momentum back.”
Toyota drivers, specifically those from Joe Gibbs Racing, dominated the first half of the race. Denny Hamlin started on the pole and raced teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, along with fellow-Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. up front for several laps early.
Busch took the lead on lap 24 and led much of the remainder of the first half of the race’s 400-lap distance. His teammate, Kenseth, was also up front for 29 laps early on, but while leading, blew his engine on lap 157. There was concern in the Toyota camp afterward, as Truex also lost an engine on lap 279.
Johnson took over up front on lap 201. He started the race from the 24th spot and went a lap down early. But after pitting early during a cycle of green-flag pit stops around lap 72, Johnson raced his way back onto the lead lap and made his way toward the front.
Johnson lost the lead for a time when pit strategies varied during a series of cautions between laps 300 and 376. Some drivers increased track position by staying out, while others pitted but took only two new tires. Johnson was back up to second behind Montoya for the restart following the seventh and final caution of the race that came out on lap 376. He drove past Montoya on the restart, but NASCAR black flagged Johnson for jumping the restart, handing the lead back over to Montoya.
“I was half-throttle all the front stretch,” Johnson said. “At some point, I’ve got to go.”
After serving the penalty, Johnson fell off the lead lap and wound up finishing the race 17th. Montoya continued to lead until he was finally passed by Stewart with three laps remaining.
“He (Stewart) was way quicker,” Montoya said. “I don’t understand where he came from. He was not that good all day.”
Montoya then had to hold off Gordon for the second spot, and was successful.
Busch finished fourth, and reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-five. Finishing sixth through 10th were Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
– photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR