CONCORD, N.C. – The final segment of the Sprint All-Star Race is typically brutal and unpredictable.
That’s how things went for awhile Saturday night. Then Tony Stewart took over.
Stewart, driving for the first time this season as a car owner, passed Matt Kenseth with two laps remaining and pulled away for his first victory in NASCAR’s all-star event at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
The race’s first three segments – 50, 20 and 20 laps – served as an uneventful prelude to the fourth segment, a 10-lap sprint for $1 million in prize money for the winner.
The last segment began with Jeff Gordon – the third segment’s winner – leading the way. A 10-minute intermission between the third and fourth segments allowed each team to make adjustments.
Two wrecks early in the final segment – taking pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson and Gordon out of contention – set the stage for Stewart’s final push.
After the second wreck, Kenseth emerged as the leader with five laps left. Stewart, starting third on the re-start, tracked him down quickly.
On Turn 2 of the 98th lap, Stewart drove his car beneath Kenseth and took the lead. He sprinted away from there.
“I felt stupid,” Kenseth said. “He went around me like I was tied to a tree.”
“I can’t believe he gave me the bottom,” Stewart said. “But I’ll take it. Matt is a guy you can trust. We got to second there, got by the No. 18 and I thought all right, we have a shot at this thing.
“We weren’t that good until the last run. (Crew chief) Darian Grubb, I mean he made some awesome calls there at the end to get us where I could drive that thing the way I could. Man, it was fast.”
The final segment began in wild fashion.
Heading into Turn 2 on the first lap, Johnson’s chances went away when he spun after Denny Hamlin nudged him from behind.
Then, on Lap 94, Ryan Newman, Gordon and Kyle Busch came barreling into Turn 4, three wide. With Newman hugging the wall, Busch in the middle and Gordon on the inside – the cars squeezed together. That sent Gordon spinning through the grass on the front stretch’s tri-oval. Gordon slid back onto the track, tagged the wall and finally skidded to a stop before reaching the first turn.
“I heard ‘three wide’ at the last second,” Gordon said. “I was wide open already. I’m glad it wasn’t worse than that.”
Newman’s Chevrolet had early problems when a shock went bad. He was a lap down and came out of the pits just ahead of then-leader Johnson – a move that allowed him to avoid being two laps down.
Johnson started on the pole and had the fastest car for much of the first segment. He built a significant lead over Kurt Busch, but saw it dwindle some when he came in for a mandatory four-tire pit stop after 25 laps. After the fresh tires gave Johnson’s Chevy another boost – he came out of the pits first ahead of Jeff Gordon and Busch – he again pulled away again.
Kyle Busch jumped to the lead at the start of the 20-lap second segment and stayed in front for the rest of that portion.
The first wreck-caused caution of the race came early in the third segment on the 71st lap, when Sam Hornish Jr. lost control in Turn 2 and hit Greg Biffle. Biffle slid into the wall and was finished for the night.
“(Hornish) just drove in there probably a little too hard,” said Biffle. “(He was) just driving a little over his head.”
Sam Hornish Jr. continued his monthlong surge, winning the Sprint Showdown to earn a transfer spot into NASCAR’s All-Star race.
It’s the second consecutive year Hornish has raced his way into the $1 million main event. He finished second a year ago to AJ Allmendinger to earn one of the two transfer spots.
Jamie McMurray finished second to earn the other spot.
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