The Associated Press
JOLIET, Ill. — Tony Stewart is a winner again.
And one day after a brief but intense lecture from Joe Gibbs, Stewart says his rift with teammate Denny Hamlin has been patched.
Stewart won the NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, breaking a 20-race winless streak that dated to last season and turning around what had otherwise been a tumultuous week for the two-time series champion.
Between the bad breaks that cost him possible victories earlier in the year and this week’s high-profile feud with Hamlin, Stewart seemed more relieved than elated by the victory — though he still managed to climb the frontstretch fence in celebration.
The Nextel Cup series is off next weekend, and Stewart can’t wait.
“You have no idea how glad I am to have the week off,” Stewart said. “I’m taking this momentum on vacation. I’ve got a case of Schlitz that I fully intend on getting to the bottom of the cardboard box tonight, even if have to do it by myself.”
Hamlin and Stewart spent the week trading barbs in the media after the two teammates wrecked at Daytona International Speedway last week. The situation became ugly enough for team owner Gibbs to take a last-minute detour from a planned vacation and come to the track Saturday to gather Stewart and Hamlin for a hastily arranged meeting.
“The good part is, it was fairly short, because Joe can get long-winded sometimes,” Stewart said. “But it was a great meeting. That’s Joe Gibbs’ strength, he knows how to motivate people and he knows how to keep a team atmosphere.”
Gibbs was not present at the track Sunday, but his son, team president J.D. Gibbs, said Stewart and Hamlin got a glimpse of how Gibbs handles his football team instead of the more laid-back demeanor the coach usually carries through the NASCAR garage area.
“He was a little more intense yesterday then he normally is in the racing world,” Gibbs said.
Stewart said he and Hamlin worked well on the track Sunday, using hand signals — no, not the R-rated kind — to communicate strategies during the race.
And, for the first time in a long time, Stewart finished the day in victory lane.
It didn’t hurt that Stewart’s strongest competitor, Jimmie Johnson, hit the wall with 45 laps remaining after his tire suddenly went flat.
Johnson walked away without any serious injuries beyond a sore elbow, but it left his car mangled and ruined his chance at a victory.
“We were definitely going to try hard,” Johnson said. “We had a good shot at it.”
The accident jumbled pit strategies for the race leaders, most of whom only needed a splash of fuel to make it to the end when they pitted with 40 laps left.
Matt Kenseth pulled side-by-side to challenge Stewart on the restart, but Stewart held him off until another caution flag came out for a crash by J.J. Yeley — the third Gibbs driver — 20 laps later.
Kenseth said that was his only real chance to get past Stewart — but he nearly lost control of his car while making the move and backed off to finish second.
“I had that one shot at him, and I couldn’t quite finish the pass,” Kenseth said.
Kenseth was glued to Stewart’s back bumper when the race restarted with 18 laps to go — and Joe Nemechek crashed two laps later, forcing Stewart to fend off the field on yet another late restart. Stewart squirted away on the final restart with 12 laps to go, and Kenseth wasn’t able to mount another challenge in the closing laps.
Kenseth held off a charge from teammate Carl Edwards to finish second. Edwards finished third, followed by Kevin Harvick and pole-sitter Casey Mears.
With two cars in the top three Sunday, it was another step forward in what started off as a down year for the Roush-Fenway team.
“I think we’ve been working pretty hard, and we’ve been gaining some ground,” Edwards said.
What was shaping up as a good day for Dale Earnhardt Inc. quickly fell apart in the final stages of the race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running third with 58 laps to go when he fell off the pace with an apparent power steering failure — remarking over his in-car radio how “funny” it was that he couldn’t really steer his car.
Teammate Martin Truex Jr., who also had been running in the top 10, pulled off the track with engine problems three laps later and rolled back into the garage.
Earnhardt stayed on the track, but dropped out of the top 10 and finished 19th.
The day belonged to Stewart, whose last victory came Nov. 5, 2006, at Texas Motor Speedway.
Stewart did win two non-points events leading up to the season-opening Daytona 500, and certainly has had his chances to win races this year at Atlanta, Bristol, Phoenix and Charlotte. Stewart said he “wasn’t freaking out” about the streak, because he knew he had cars capable of winning.
Now that Stewart is back in victory lane, he and the rest of the Cup field seem to be gaining ground on Hendrick.
Hendrick drivers Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears won 10 of the first 14 races. But Hendrick now has been shut out of victory lane for the past five races. Mears was fifth, the highest-finishing Hendrick car.
“I feel like we’re still just a little bit off to be able to beat them every week, that’s how I feel myself,” Kenseth said. “But we’re getting closer.”