DOVER, Del. — With one big move, Tony Stewart put Juan Pablo Montoya and a sluggish season well behind him.
After a mundane start, Stewart is back in Victory Lane — and in the thick of Chase contention.
Stewart’s outside pass on Montoya with three laps left was enough to win Sunday at Dover International Speedway and snap a 30-race winless streak.
“Our guys at our shop have been digging,” Stewart said. “None of these guys get down. We have been down, but they haven’t gotten down. That is what carries you to days like today at the end of the day.”
Stewart was stuck in 20th in the standings and didn’t even have a top-finish before he rallied in Dover. Stewart hadn’t won on the concrete mile track since he swept both Cup races in 2000.
The No. 14 team erupted in celebration in the pits after winning for the first time since last July in Daytona.
It was a long time coming for the two-time Cup champ.
“It’s been such a tough year,” Stewart said.
It got a little easier Sunday. Stewart stoutly defended crew chief Steve Addington’s performance this year and thanked Hendrick Motorsports for supplying engines to his Stewart-Haas Racing team.
He also knows their work is far from finished.
“We realize this could put the 14 team in contention to make the Chase,” he said. “That’s not good enough.”
Meaning, he wants to not only make the 12-driver field, but know he’s a top contender to win another championship. His 48th career win pushed him to 16th in the points standings and aided his cause for a wild-card spot. The two drivers in the 11th to 20th spot in the standings with the most wins earn a slot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Stewart is the only driver in those spots with a win.
“It’s been very hard when you have the start of the season that we had,” Stewart said. “You start questioning, you start doubting, you start looking for answers that you don’t have the knowledge to diagnose. That makes you feel very helpless at times.”
Seven-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson appeared to have the car to beat, but jumped a restart and had to serve a pass-through penalty. Johnson argued over the radio and stayed on the track before he finally hit pit road.
With Johnson out of the picture, Montoya and Stewart battled for the lead the rest of the race.
Jeff Gordon was third, followed by Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. NASCAR said Keselowski, the reigning series champion, failed post-race inspection because the entire front of his No. 2 Ford was too low. This was crew chief Paul Wolfe’s first race back after a two-race suspension for unapproved parts.
Stewart tested at Dover and hoped that would help at a track that’s given him fits the last few years. He hadn’t finished better than 20th in his last four races at Dover.
He might not have gotten this win had Johnson not been penalized with about 19 laps left. Johnson jumped ahead of Montoya out of the restart box and NASCAR quickly threw the black flag.
“We certainly had the winning car,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to come back and do it in the fall.”
Montoya’s only two career Cup victories came on road courses. He tried to play the spoiler after Johnson’s penalty but just didn’t have enough to hold off a hard-charging Stewart.
“The car was a little bit too much of a handful at the end,” Montoya said. “We tried. I think it was too hot on the tires the run before and our left tires were completely gone.”
Johnson, who kept the points lead, finished 17th.
“He just wanted to get the jump on me,” Montoya said. “He just jumped it too much. I would have tried to do the same.”
Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr., both in the top 10 in points entering the race, made early exits because of engine issues.
Pole sitter Denny Hamlin finished 34th after he hit the wall late in the race. Hamlin needed a big points day to try and crack the top 20 if he has any hope at a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship wild-card berth. Hamlin is 26th in the standings, 122 points out of 10th and 74 points out of 20th.
Few drivers run as well deep into the season as Stewart. It might be time again for him to get rolling.
“It’s not a fix-all for what we’ve got going on,” Addington said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Stewart-Haas Racing appeared to turn a corner last week at Charlotte after Ryan Newman finished sixth and Stewart was seventh.
Stewart said one strong weekend wasn’t going to cure all of SHR’s problems.
Make it two and with a big win in hand.
“We got two weeks of momentum under our belt now at two totally different race tracks,” Stewart said. “That is big. Momentum is huge in this sport. We still got a lot of work to do. We won’t sit.”