You never know exactly when he’s going to strike, but the odds of it happening are much better once the weather heats up. Stewart is a notoriously slow starter, but the beginning of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season was lethargic even by Smoke’s standards.
Heading into Sunday’s race in Dover, Stewart had just two top-10 finishes to his credit and was mired at 20th in the points standings. Then, out of the clear blue sky, Stewart roared to the front of the pack in the final laps and went to Victory Lane at a track he hadn’t won at since 2000.
Stewart clearly didn’t have the best car on the track. That distinction belonged to Jimmie Johnson, who is normally as automatic as Mariano Rivera when it comes to closing out a win. On Sunday, however, Johnson jumped the final restart and took himself out of contention.
It was a rare mistake for the 48 team, but it was just the break Stewart was looking for. What the two-time Cup champion does with it remains to be seen, but Stewart changed his fortunes dramatically by leaving Dover sitting 16th in points and in possession of the top wild-card spot midway through the regular season.
A lot of wins in NASCAR’s elite series come as a result of race teams brimming with confidence and putting it all together when it matters most. But to hear Stewart talk in the post-race press conference, Sunday’s win was born out of anger and discontent.
After giving the media a tongue-lashing for a few stories speculating on the job security of Steve Addington, Stewart’s crew chief, he opened up about his role as a team owner. The frustration at the race shop has been high with Stewart-Haas Racing’s three cars getting off to such a slow start, so Stewart has had to grab a set of pom-poms and play cheerleader.
It’s an unfamiliar role for the gruff veteran, but it paid dividends on Sunday. While winning isn’t a cure-all, especially on a team with Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick languishing in the standings, it might be the spark Stewart needs to make a run at another championship.
Aside from Stewart’s breakthrough win, Sunday’s race was overflowing with interesting storylines.
Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. both blew engines, casting doubts once again on the reliability of the engines being churned out by Toyota Racing Development. Kenseth still leads the series in wins, but his championship run will depend on the parts inside his No. 20 car each week.
Joe Gibbs Racing has a solid track record, but the engines from TRD could prove to be Kenseth’s undoing. Although his penalty for having a light rod in his engine during a race he won in Kansas was greatly reduced, Kenseth paid the price on Sunday for a TRD engine shop that seems to be lacking in the quality control department.
Speaking of JGR, Kyle Busch kept his impressive season going with another top-five finish while Denny Hamlin’s slim hopes of making the Chase got even smaller when a late-race wreck relegated him to a 34th-place finish. Hamlin fell to 26th in points and needs to claw back into the top 20 in order to be eligible for a wild-card spot, but Stewart’s victory most likely means that Hamlin will have to find a way to score two wins instead of one in order to leave Richmond with a Chase berth.
As for Johnson, he appeared to be cruising to victory before it was ruled that he jumped the final restart. Video evidence clearly showed that Johnson got to the start/finish line before Montoya, the race leader and Johnson’s argument that Montoya spun his tires didn’t prevent a black flag that knocked him out of the top 10. Nobody is better than bouncing back from adversity than Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus, so it will be interesting to see whether the 48 team can make a statement this week at Pocono.
While Johnson tries to make a statement, Brad Keselowski once again has some explaining to do. Keselowski's Ford failed a post-race inspection, the second failed inspection of the season for the defending champion. Roger Penske found some relief for Keselowski during the appeals process earlier this season, but as a second-time offender, the penalties this time around could do some serious damage to Keselowski's title defense.
As for Stewart, he’ll simply be looking to keep his momentum rolling into the dog days of summer, repeating a pattern that has vaulted him into the ranks of the serious title contenders nearly every season of his career.
One thing’s for certain — if lightning strikes twice, look out for Smoke.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.