Illegal last-ditch effort by Smith can’t deny Tony a trip to Victory Lane
Posted: Monday, October 6, 2008 7:33 pm
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Tony Stewart lost races this year with last-lap passes, late blown tires and mechanical failures.
Stuck in a 43-race winless streak, he was not going to be denied by a rookie driver unaccustomed to the necessary blocking it takes to win at Talladega Superspeedway.
Stewart blocked Regan Smith for the final three laps Sunday, forcing Smith to dip below an out-of-bounds line at the bottom of the track to make a last-ditch pass that NASCAR later ruled illegal.
It gave Stewart his first win of the year and his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Talladega.
“I’ve lost Daytona 500s, I’ve lost races here at Talladega because somebody blocked,” Stewart said. “That’s the name of the game. There’s always been people blocking. The nice thing is I was actually on the right end of it this time.
“Trust me, I’ve got no regrets about what I did. I did exactly what I needed to do to win the race, and it worked out.”
Stewart is no stranger to the “yellow line rule.” He was the first driver convicted of breaking it when he dipped below the stripe at a 2001 race at Daytona.
But the rule has grown murky over the years, and Smith believed the pass was legal because Stewart’s blocking gave him no option but to drive below the racing surface.
Other drivers thought Smith was correct because of a belief that the rule is not in effect on the final lap of a race.
“We’ve seen in the past that they’ve allowed that to happen coming to the checkered (flag),” said second-place finisher Paul Menard. “For some reason, they chose not to this time.”
Smith was in second and trailed Stewart for the final three laps, and the rookie made one attempt to grab his first career victory by ducking inside of Stewart to attempt a pass. Stewart wouldn’t relent, moving with Smith down the track until Smith dove below the yellow line to make the pass.
He moved back onto the racing surface in front of Stewart and cruised to the finish line.
NASCAR reviewed the move and declared it illegal. Smith went with Dale Earnhardt Inc. president Max Siegel to argue the decision, but was rebuffed and dropped to 18th in the final finishing order.
“We just watched the tape. They can argue about it for five years, they’re not going to change the decision. That’s not how NASCAR works,” Smith said. “I totally disagree with them 110 percent. I clearly moved to the outside, moved back to the inside. Tony made a move to the high side and made a move to the bottom side.
“My nose was in there. The only other option I had was to wreck him.”
The ruling gave Stewart his first win since Watkins Glen last year and allowed him to cross Talladega off his list of tracks where he’d failed to earn a victory. Talladega has taunted him for 10 years, as Stewart finished second a maddening six times.
It looked as if he’d again come up short in his final race here with Joe Gibbs Racing, especially after he was caught in a Friday accident when Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire in practice.
Crew chief Greg Zipadelli decided to fix the damaged car instead of moving to the backup, and the No. 20 crew worked late Friday night making the repairs on the machine.
The car proved to be good on Sunday when Stewart used flawless strategy that helped him avoid a late 12-car accident and execute a perfect restart when Smith and two of his DEI teammates were lurking behind him on the final sprint to the finish.
“I knew with three DEI cars behind me, it was going to be tough to hold on,” Stewart said.
Stewart got the jump, but smartly made sure he didn’t pull too far out and give the DEI contingent the opportunity to gang up and blow past him. Then he blocked Smith the rest of the way, only letting up when Smith went below the yellow line.
“Man, it’s one thing to get back to Victory Lane — but to do it at Talladega — this is one of four places I haven’t won a Cup race, and talk about one to win,” Stewart said. “I wanted to win here for so long.”
Menard, who said earlier this week he’ll leave DEI at the end of the season, was a career-high second and was followed by rookie David Ragan and Chase drivers Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer.
Bobby Labonte was sixth, followed by Scott Riggs, Robby Gordon, points leader Jimmie Johnson and Elliott Sadler.
A NASCAR-record 28 drivers led and there were 31 lead changes.
The race also featured several tire failures and lived up to its reputation as the “wild card” of the 10 Chase events.
Because of its white-knuckle racing conditions, Talladega is the one Chase race every driver fears will ruin his title hopes.
It most certainly did for Denny Hamlin, who was held overnight at a Birmingham hospital with a possible concussion suffered in an accident after his tire exploded while leading. He finished 39th and dropped to last in the Chase field.
And it may very well have sunk the Roush Fenway Racing trio of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, who were at the front of a 12-car accident with 16 laps to go. It started when Edwards tried to give Biffle a shove to the front, but the bump caused Biffle to spin into Kenseth as all three Roush Fenway Racing cars crashed.
The carnage spread to Chase drivers Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch, but Johnson deftly maneuvered through the wreckage and pushed his lead in the standings to 72 points over Edwards.
Edwards immediately accepted responsibility for the accident that sunk several Chase drivers.
“I was just pushing Greg as hard as I could. This is my fault, I apologize to everyone caught up in the wreck,” Edwards said. “It’s my fault. I feel bad I took my teammates out. I know Matt’s mad, and I’m sure Greg is mad. I always worry about the idiots when I come here and today it was me.”