With one bold move, the defending Sprint Cup champion was on his way to a redemptive win.
Stewart made a three-wide pass on a late restart and held off Jimmie Johnson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, winning at a track that was the site of his biggest disappointment last season.
“We had to wait 365 days for a shot at it again,” Stewart said. “I might not have been so mad on the airplane had I known I was going to win a year later.”
Stewart came back to Las Vegas with a new crew chief and the hope of having a little better luck than he had a year ago, when a pit mishap spoiled a chance at victory with what he believed to be the best car in the field.
With Steve Addington calling the shots from the pit box, Stewart again had a good car in his return trip to the desert, uncatchable on the restarts and good enough to hold off Johnson, Greg Biffle and anyone else who tried to track him down.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a car that fast,” said Biffle, who finished third. “On the restarts, I’ve just never seen a car driving off like that.”
Stewart got the lead with a did-he-just-do-that move with 34 laps to go in the 400-mile race.
Coming around turn 4 to the start/finish line, Stewart charged up behind Brad Keselowski and timed it just right to dip below him on the apron. He zipped to the front and stayed there, pulling away on three more less-thrilling restarts over the final 17 laps.
It was his sixth win in the past 13 Sprint Cup races and first on the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
“We almost got too good a restart because I got such a good run on Brad, I almost got there too quick,” Stewart said. “If we’d have got there a foot earlier, we’d have had to check up and probably wouldn’t get a run and get underneath him like that.”
A year ago, Stewart appeared to be cruising to Victory Lane at Las Vegas, only to be tripped up in the pits.
He was penalized for leaving his pit stall with an air hose still attached and the team opted to take two tires on a later stop to get him back to the front.
Stewart did get to the front, but the rest of the teams saw that taking two tires would work and switched
tactics. Forced to take four tires late in the race, he dropped to 22nd and ran out of time to catch Carl Edwards, finishing second.
Stewart went on to win his third Sprint Cup championship, thanks to the five times he was able to get to Victory Lane. He fired crew chief Darian Grubb after the season and lured Addington from Penske Racing to replace him.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated the early part of the race, leading 70 of the first 73 laps. He dropped back after taking four tires while nearly else took two during a caution on lap 74 and struggled after that, finishing 10th to extend his winless streak to 132 races.