Stewart wins at Talladega

Published 6:11 pm Sunday, October 5, 2008

TALLADEGA – Tony Stewart ended his frustrating winless season Sunday by earning his first Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway when NASCAR ruled Regan Smith’s last-lap pass was illegal.

Smith was in second and trailed Stewart for the final three laps around Talladega, and the rookie made one desperate attempt to grab his first career victory by ducking inside of the two-time champion to attempt a pass.

Stewart blocked, Smith dove below the yellow out-of-bounds line at the bottom of the track to make the pass, and beat Stewart to the finish line. NASCAR reviewed the move — a driver is allowed to make the pass if officials believe he was forced under the line — and declared it illegal.

Smith thought he was within the rules on the pass, and went with Dale Earnhardt Inc. president Max Siegel to defend himself to NASCAR.

“I knew I was only going to get one shot at him,” Smith said. “I knew where I was going to make my move. I don’t know. I was always told that the rule is if you get forced down there, then you are the winner of the race and on the last lap, anything goes. That’s what I was going with.

“I got forced down there, man, I had a nose inside of him and I could have piled up the whole field.”

The ruling gave Stewart his first win of the season and snapped a 43-race winless streak dating to Watkins Glen last year. It also was his first career Cup win at Talladega, which has taunted him for 10 years as he finished second a maddening six times.

It looked like he’d again come up short in his final race at Talladega with Joe Gibbs Racing, especially after he was caught in a Friday accident when Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli decided to fix the damaged car instead of moving to the backup, and the No. 20 crew worked late into Friday night making the repairs.

Then a poor qualifying effort on Saturday. Stewart started 34th, which made some wonder if the team had made the right decision in sticking with the damaged car.

Stewart proved everyone wrong on Sunday with flawless strategy that helped him avoid a late 12-car accident and execute a perfect restart when Smith and two of his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates were lurking behind him on the final sprint to the finish.