Tony Stewart took the lead for the first time after passing Juan Montoya with three laps to go and drove to his first win and first top-five finish of the 2013 season.
DOVER, Del. — In NASCAR, it’s not who dominates the race; it’s who’s at the front when the checkered flag waves.
Kyle Busch dominated the first half and Jimmie Johnson the second half of the FedEx 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday at Dover International Speedway. But Tony Stewart took the lead for the first time after passing Juan Montoya with three laps to go and drove to his first win and first top-five finish of the 2013 season.
“It’s been such a tough year,” Stewart said. “Hopefully, we’ll start to build that momentum back.”
Montoya and Jeff Gordon, who were not running up front for most of the race, finished second and third, respectively.
Toyota drivers, particularly from Joe Gibbs Racing, dominated the first half of the race. Denny Hamlin started on the pole and raced teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, along with fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr., up front early.
Busch took the lead on lap 24 and led much of the remainder of the first half of the race’s 400 laps. His teammate, Kenseth, was also up front for 29 laps early, but blew his engine on lap 157. Truex also lost an engine on lap 279.
“Something broke in the engine,” Kenseth said. “Man, it’s disappointing. Had a great car today.”
Johnson, who started the race from the 24th spot and went a lap down early, took over the lead on lap 201. But after pitting early during a cycle of green-flag pit stops around lap 72, Johnson raced his way back onto the lead lap and toward the front.
Johnson lost the lead for a time when pit strategies varied during a series of cautions between laps 300 and 376.
Johnson was back up to second behind Montoya for the restart after the seventh and final caution of the race came out on lap 376. He drove past Montoya on the restart, but NASCAR black-flagged Johnson for jumping the restart, handing the lead back to Montoya.
“I was half-throttle all the front stretch,” Johnson said. “At some point, I’ve got to go.”
After serving the penalty, Johnson fell off the lead lap and wound up finishing 17th. Montoya continued to lead until he was passed by Stewart with three laps remaining.
“He (Stewart) was way quicker,” Montoya said. “I don’t understand where he came from. He was not that good all day.”
Gordon had used pit strategy to gain track position to be near the front at the finish. He stayed out during a couple of late-race cautions and then the final caution of the race came out just in time to prevent him from having to make a final pit stop under green. After the restart, Gordon raced Montoya hard for the second spot.
“We needed something to go our way, and that’s something that hasn’t happened much this year,” Gordon said.
It was pit strategy that also put Stewart near the front in the late-going to contend for the win.
“(Crew chief Steve) Addington’s pit strategy gave us an opportunity there at the end,” Stewart said.
Busch finished fourth and reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski rounded out the top five. Finishing sixth through 10th were Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
NOTES: Stewart’s most recent win came 30 races ago, in 2012. … Stewart is the eighth winner in 2013. … Sunday’s win was Stewart’s third at Dover and the third for his crew chief Addington. … Johnson leads all active drivers in Dover wins with seven. … Johnson won four of the last eight races at Dover prior to Sunday. … Busch also led the most laps last fall at Dover and didn’t win. … Kenseth also lost an engine while leading in the season opener at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.