JIM UTTER, Charlotte Observer
Stewart Turns Into Victory
JOLIET, Ill. – It nearly took a Chicago-style street fight, but Tony Stewart emerged Sunday with his first Nextel Cup Series victory of the season.
Whether it was worth the cost remains to be seen.
Stewart blew away his nearest rival Jimmie Johnson over the final 11 of 267 laps to win Sunday’s Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, earning his first win of the year and 18th of his career. How he got into the position for the victory remains the subject of much debate.
On a restart from a caution on Lap 127, Stewart pulled out of line, drove up the right side of the track and hit then-leader Kasey Kahne from behind, sending Kahne’s No. 9 Dodge into the wall and igniting a wreck that collected a total of eight cars.
Kahne’s crew chief, Tommy Baldwin, was incensed and headed to Stewart’s pit stall to confront crew chief, Greg Zipadelli. The two quickly became involved in a heated confrontation that ended with members from both teams scuffling on pit road.
While Kahne’s team stewed over the incident, NASCAR officials continued the race without delay, electing not to penalize Stewart.
Stewart took advantage, continuing to show he had a strong car and withstood challenges from Sterling Marlin, Jeremy Mayfield and finally Johnson, for the win.
“I don’t know if he was shifting or missed a shift or what happened, but I had already stopped my momentum of catching up and all of a sudden, he backed up to us and we ran into the back of him,” Stewart said.
“I don’t know what caused him to check up. It could have torn us up as easily as it did him in all reality. When he had the break in his momentum, we were right on his rear bumper when it happened.”
Kahne denied any notion he “checked up,” or slowed on the restart.
On the restart my car “started sliding a little bit in the back. I was kind of steering it and right as I pulled it into fourth gear, I got hit. I guess he was up under me and spun us into the wall,” he said.
“I don’t know what he was thinking. Our car hadn’t restarted very well all day long. We were just going up through the gears. If the car in front of you isn’t going fast, you can’t just turn them into the wall on the restart.”
NASCAR spokesman Herb Branham said officials considered the accident a “racing incident and nothing more,” and if a penalty was required, it would have been assessed during the race.
Except with his team, Stewart’s victory was not a popular one.
The chorus of boos from the nearly 75,000 fans in attendance rivaled those received by Kurt Busch following his win at Bristol, Tenn., last August.
Jimmy Spencer had struck Busch after the Michigan race the weekend before causing Spencer’s suspension. There was much evidence, however, Spencer had been provoked.
Stewart appeared to understand the situation, as he elected not to make any celebratory laps or burnouts after the win and drove his No. 20 Chevrolet right to Victory Lane.
Asked about his decision not to celebrate, Stewart said, “I didn’t need to. It was late in the day. I’m ready to go home. The sooner I get done the sooner I get out of here.”
Kahne’s car owner, Ray Evernham, was outraged Stewart received no penalty.
“Tony Stewart loses his temper again and takes us out for the second time this year. NASCAR refuses to do anything about it. You got a guy that does this week in and week out and nobody’s doing anything about it,” Evernham said.
“I’d like to have 10 minutes with Tony Stewart and handle it myself. What happened there was unnecessary, and NASCAR needs to do something about it before somebody gets hurt.”
Evernham argued with officials in the garage immediately after the incident to no avail. Once Baldwin made his first of what would be two trips to the NASCAR hauler, Evernham continued his verbal assault:
“He definitely needs to get suspended, and he should have his ass beat. That’s the problem with him. Nobody has ever really grabbed him and given him a good beating,” Evernham said.
“If he doesn’t get suspended, maybe I’ll do that.
Baldwin, who likely faces a suspension this week once penalties are doled out for the pit road incident, echoed Evernham’s comments.
“That’s just Tony Stewart doing what he’s been doing all year, driving like a moron, you know? There’s no reason to do that stuff,” he said.
“He gets away with it all he wants, and all NASCAR does is fine him. He’s got plenty of money. The guy needs to sit out a race.”
Asked why he went to Stewart’s pit stall, Baldwin said, “I was just talking to (Zipadelli), telling him his driver is a moron.
“I got off the pit box, he started pushing me, and then the official grabbed me. I don’t know what happened after that.”
The Stewart-Kahne incident largely overshadowed most of the remainder of the race.
Johnson, the series points leader, was the only driver to keep pace with Stewart in the latter stages, but even with three cautions in the final 57 laps, Johnson still finished 2.925 seconds behind Stewart.
“It was a solid effort for us. There was one segment where we had the car to beat,” Johnson said. “I think (Stewart) was the strongest car all day long. It deserved to win the race.
“He had the speed and obviously a little controversy to go with it.”
Dale Jarrett finished third, Jeff Gordon was fourth and Jeremy Mayfield completed the top five.