April 26, 2008
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) -- Tony Stewart held off Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s last-lap charge to win the Nationwide Series race Saturday for his first career victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
Tony Stewart celebrates after wining the Aaron's 312 from the pole.
"This is not like winning a regular Nationwide race," he said. "To me this is the biggest one I've had. To finally win at Talladega, it's more than I can put into words."
Stewart started from the pole, led 81 of the 117 laps, and sat comfortably out front in the waning laps with Earnhardt on his rear bumper just biding his time to make a move. Caution came out with five laps to go for debris, setting up a two-lap sprint to the finish.
They raced nose-to-tail for the first lap, then Earnhardt pulled out of line to make his charge. But Earnhardt didn't have enough momentum and didn't get the help he needed to race past Stewart. It allowed Stewart to go virtually unchallenged for the final lap, as Earnhardt faded to sixth.
"Me and Tony worked great together the entire race and if I could help it, I wanted it to come down between me and him because we worked together the whole race and it was down to the last lap," Earnhardt said. "I backed off trying to get the rear bumper to [Greg Biffle] and some of the others to get a run. I thought we had it timed good, but our run wasn't as good as it could have been, and Tony's car was just that strong."
It was Stewart's first win in any series at Talladega, where he has finished second in six Cup Series races. His previous best finish in a Nationwide race at the track was second last year. That race was just the first time he'd made it to the finish line in five starts, with four DNFs before it.
And even though he dominated the race, he wasn't comfortable as the leader on the final restart.
"With the momentum of these cars, I knew I probably needed to get back to [Earnhardt] and not get too far out front," he said. "You don't know what to do. I didn't think leading was the place to be, and I still don't think that, even after winning the race, that being the leader with two laps to go was the right place to be.
"He did what he had to do, they just got spread out behind us and we got a push that we needed."
David Stremme finished second, his best result since he finished second in Milwaukee in 2004. Bobby Hamilton Jr. was third, and both agreed nobody had a car strong enough to challenge Stewart or Earnhardt.
"They were in their own deal," Stremme said. "The rest of us were just trying to run together and make our own moves."
Stewart celebrated in Victory Lane with a young girl from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and dedicated the win to her. He said he told her before the race he'd try to win for her so she could celebrate after the race.
"I told her we'd try extra hard to get her in Victory Lane today, and I'm glad we got you here," he told her. "Now we're going to have to take her on the road the rest of the year."
The race was slowed by eight cautions for 27 laps, including a 12-car accident that brought a red flag stoppage of 25 minutes.
The accident happened when Kevin Lepage pitted for a loose wheel under green and blended back onto the track right ahead of the field as the pack headed into the first turn. He wasn't at the same speed, and the cars couldn't avoid running over him.
Carl Edwards was the first to his Lepage, with contact that lifted Edward's car off the track.
"In my mind it just looks like somebody just pulled up right in front of the field," Edwards said as he watched the replay. "I'm driving around, minding my own business, and good afternoon. I'm just glad I didn't get hurt there."
But Lepage was adamant he did nothing wrong, and said he followed NASCAR's rules for returning to the track when he blended back in. He also fiercely defended his spotter, wife Donna.
"As I was leaving pit road, the spotter says 'Pack coming' and I stayed down until I got in Turn 1. The first half a dozen cars or so passed me, and the next thing you know I got rear-ended," Lepage said. "Everybody is mad at me for pulling up onto the race track, but you go to the driver meeting and they say stay low until you get to turn 1 and then pull up on the race track.
"My spotter has been spotting for me for a number of years and I think she did a great job. There's 40 other guys out there trying to spot these things, and if they couldn't see me coming out of the pits, then maybe they need to get new spotters."
The first wreck occurred 10 laps into the race when Dario Franchitti lost his right rear tire, hit the wall and spiraled down the track. He was down on the apron when his car was T-boned by Larry Gunselman. Both drivers were transported to a hospital for observation, and X-rays showed Franchitti broke his left ankle.
It was unclear whether Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, would race in the Sprint Cup Series on Sunday. Stremme, who drove the car for two seasons before Franchitti replaced him this year, said Chip Ganassi Racing had approached him about filling in for Franchitti but he wasn't sure he was contractually allowed.