On a day when the lead was swapped 64 times among 28 drivers, it ended up with a driver who had never led the most important lap at Talladega Superspeedway.
Tony Stewart picked up his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, prevailing over Regan Smith and Paul Menard on the final lap to win the AMP Energy 500.
Stewart had finished in second place six times in 19 career starts at Talladega Superspeedway, but had never won. Talladega was one of only four tracks on the Sprint Cup Series circuit that Stewart had failed to conquer.
“People don’t understand what it means to win here,” Stewart said. “Winning the Nationwide race here this year (for his first Talladega victory in any series) was huge to me. And now to win the Cup race, man, it’s just an awesome feeling. We finally got ourselves in Victory Lane here.”
Stewart’s longtime crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, also was excited about seeing the No. 20 car finally take the checkered flag at Talladega Superspeedway.
“We’ve had a lot of good cars here in the past, and hadn’t been able to get that victory,” Zipadelli said. “This is one of those places where, if you were going to pick five or six race tracks to win at in your career, this is one of them. For us to finally get our first win after all those seconds and top-fives we’ve had, it’s cool.”
The 28 different leaders is a record for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, breaking the old mark of 26 previously held by Talladega, that was set in July 1986 and equaled in April 2001. No driver held the lead for more than 20 consecutive laps, and only three drivers managed to hold onto first place for as long as 10 laps.
The tone was set early, as the lead traded hands 30 times in less than 50 laps, from lap 35 to 83. During that span, no driver led for more than five consecutive laps.
Stewart took the lead for good on lap 174 and held onto first place for the final 17 laps. But he had some anxious moments on the last lap, as Smith and Menard – teammates at Dale Earnhardt Inc. – lined up behind him for the final trip around the 2.66-mile tri-oval.
Smith finally attempted to pass as the cars came out of Turn 4, but Stewart attempted to block the move and NASCAR deemed that Smith went below the yellow line at the bottom of the track, preserving the victory for Stewart. Smith officially finished in 18th place.
“For 10 years, I’ve lost races here at Talladega because somebody blocked. That’s just the name of the game,” Stewart said. “Today’s race wasn’t any different than the last 19 races that I’ve run here. There have always been people blocking. The nice thing is I was actually on the right end of it this time.
“Trust me, I have no regrets about what I did. I did exactly what I needed to do to win the race, and it worked out.”
Menard was awarded the runner-up spot, followed by David Ragan in third, Jeff Burton fourth, Clint Bower fifth, Bobby Labonte sixth, Scott Riggs seventh, Robby Gordon eighth, Jimmie Johnson ninth and Elliott Sadler 10th.
Kyle Busch, who won the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway in April, finished 15th. Among the rest of the drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, Kevin Harvick came in 20th, Greg Biffle was 24th, Matt Kenseth 26th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 28th, Carl Edwards 29th, Jeff Gordon 38th and Denny Hamlin 39th.
Johnson overcame falling a lap down only 25 laps into the race to salvage a top-10 finish. In the process, he built a 72-point lead over Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup Series standings. Greg Biffle is 77 points behind and Jeff Burton trails by 99.