INDIANAPOLIS – Tony Stewart was too spent to climb the fence right away and too happy to care.
A lifelong quest to win a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ended Sunday with Stewart finally getting his “Holy Grail,” and he made sure to draw out the celebration as long as he could while the partisan crowd roared with approval.
It wasn’t the native Hoosier’s beloved Indianapolis 500, but the former IndyCar champion, who has longed to win a race at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, held off a determined challenge from Kasey Kahne to grab an emotional victory in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.
It was the fourth victory in the last six races and seventh top-10 finish in a row for the hottest driver in NASCAR, moving him into the lead in the Nextel Cup standings for the first time since he wrapped up his only Cup title in 2002.
“I wish I could put it into words,” Stewart said. “It’s been my entire life.”
This one was up for grabs nearly to the end, with Stewart taking his first lead by passing Brian Vickers with 60 laps to go. But the 25-year-old Kahne, last year’s top rookie, didn’t make it easy, passing Stewart for the lead with 27 laps left in the 160-lap event – bringing a groan from the crowd of more than 250,000.
Stewart stayed with Kahne, though. After Jimmie Johnson – who came into the race as the points leader – blew a tire and hit the wall on lap 144, bringing out the last of nine caution flags in the race, Stewart took advantage of the restart on lap on lap 150 to regain the lead.
Kahne hung onto the rear bumper of Stewart’s orange No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet for a couple of laps, but Stewart finally began pulling away and raced on to win by 0.794-seconds – about 5 car-lengths.
Stewart, who has climbed the fence to the flagstand after his most recent victories this year, parked his car in the corner of turn two after the cooldown lap and walked up to the foot of the fence, where he popped open a can of soda and started sipping.
Then he got back in his car, started it up and headed for the start-finish line. After getting hugs from his crew, he lay down on the concrete wall at the bottom of the fencing, holding a checkered cloth to his forehead, wearing a giddy grin all the while.
“I’m dying right now,” Stewart said. “Too tired to chase fences right now. Give me five minutes and I’ll be ready.”
Finally, Stewart regained enough energy to really begin his victory celebration, taking a slow ride around the famed 2.5-mile oval in a convertible truck, smiling and waving to the cheering fans.
He and his crew hung on the fence in front of the main grandstand for a while, then got on their knees and turned their hats backward for the Indy tradition of kissing the yard of red bricks that harken back to the days when the entire track was brick and now mark the finish line.
Kahne, who got his first Nextel Cup victory earlier this season at Richmond, was disappointed for himself but happy for Stewart.
“We had an awesome car,” he said. “I just gave up a little bit through the restart. I couldn’t do anything with it.
“It was a big win for Tony. He wanted to win this real bad.”
Vickers finished third, followed by Jeremy Mayfield, Matt Kenseth, Casey Mears, Mark Martin and four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon.
As great a day as it was for Stewart, it was a disastrous race for Johnson, who started 42nd after his car failed inspection on Saturday.
He was able to drive into the top 20 early in the race but spun out and wound up being sent to the rear of the lead lap cars after making two pit stops for repairs when NASCAR had pit road closed.
Johnson was dazed after slamming hard into the wall late in the race. Calling it the “hardest hit I’ve taken,” he had to be helped out of his car in the pits when the engine caught fire.
Asked if he realized the car was on fire, Johnson said, “No, I don’t really remember coming from turn four to the pits. I just remember kind of waking up on pit road and the guys pulling me out of the car. So, it’s all good.”
Johnson, who fell to second place in the standings, 75 points behind Stewart, was taken to Methodist Hospital after the race for observation.
Blown tires caused several other cautions on Sunday and Goodyear, the exclusive tire supplier for the Cup series, said it appeared the problems were caused by running over curbing on the inside of the turns or by overinflation or underinflation of the tires.
Another significant yellow flag came on lap 63 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was hit from behind and turned sideways into the inside wall by Mike Skinner before sliding back up the track and making contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr., Scott Wimmer and Robby Gordon.
The crash ended the day for Earnhardt, who was running far back in the field.
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