For Tony Stewart, the 24th time was the charm.
Twelve years after he made his Talladega Superspeedway debut, Stewart finally got to visit Victory Lane at the track. He held off an attempted last-lap pass by Dale Earnhardt Jr. along the backstretch, and then pulled away to win the Aaron’s 312 NASCAR Nationwide Series race Saturday for his first career victory on the 2.66-mile trioval.
The win was a long time coming for Stewart, who had competed in 18 NASCAR Sprint Cup races and five Nationwide events before Saturday. He had posted runner-up finishes seven times, including four in a six-race span from 2005-07. On three occasions he finished second behind Earnhardt.
Stewart had a reversal of fortunate Saturday, when he was able to maintain the lead in front of Earnhardt and hold on for what he admitted afterward was one of the sweetest victories of his career.
“I don’t care if it’s a bicycle race, I finally won a race at Talladega,” a beaming Stewart said. “I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight, I’m so excited. This is not like winning just any Nationwide race. To me, this is the biggest one I’ve had, to finally win at Talladega.
“This place means a lot to me. Everybody knows how close I am to Red Farmer and Donnie Allison. It was important for me to win here in this state in front of people who I consider family, and we’re close like family. Now I can go to Red Farmer and Donnie Allison and say, ‘I finally won one here.’ ”
When Earnhardt was unable to complete the pass around Stewart, he faded back to a sixth-place finish. David Stremme was able to power his way to second, followed by Bobby Hamilton Jr. in third, Jason Leffler fourth and Mark Green fifth.
Stewart led 81 of the 117 laps, and Earnhardt was right behind him most of that time.
“They were in their own deal,” Stremme said. “The rest of us were just trying to run together.”
Stewart said he enjoyed having Earnhardt as his drafting partner, but knew that it could pose a problem at the end of the race.
“Having Junior behind you for three-quarters of the race, that’s like having an insurance policy. You know you’re in good hands there,” Stewart said. “But at the same time, while you know you’re going to have help for most of the race, when you get to the last 10 laps, that insurance policy turns bad real quick.”
In fact, Stewart thought he might be heading to another Talladega disappointment as he took the white flag for the final lap, and saw Earnhardt behind him with several other cars lined up to give him a potential push into the lead.
“When we came off of turn 4 to come down to the white flag, and I saw Earnhardt and the line behind him, I thought, ‘There’s nothing about this that’s good,’ ” Stewart said.
“So the whole time down the front straightaway and the whole time into 1 and 2, I was weighing what my options were.
“But we had such a good car that we carried enough momentum down the backstretch that even when Earnhardt went by us, we were able to stay with him and get the side draft. And then I got the push from Stremme and got back in front, and it was like the weight of the world was off our shoulders, and we had a shot to finally win it.”
Nationwide points leader Clint Bowyer finished 25th, but maintained a 27-point lead in the standings over Carl Edwards because Edwards finished 31st. Kyle Busch, who is third in the points and had won three consecutive Nationwide races, finished 16th.
Tickets are still available to the Aaron’s 499 by calling 1-877- Go2-DEGA, by logging onto www.racetickets.com, and are also available for purchase on-site at the Talladega Superspeedway Ticket Office located on Speedway Boulevard at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.