Tony Stewart stretched his fuel mileage further than any of his rivals to score his first points' victory of the season in the Pocono 500.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion had already won the non-points All-Star race last month, but today's victory allows him to become the first driver to win a championship event while racing for his own squad, since Ricky Rudd did so for the last time at Martinsville in 1998.
Stewart had started last after switching to his back up car for following an incident on Saturdays' first practice, where he damaged his primary machine. For that reason, he lost the chance of starting from pole position after qualifying got rained out on Friday, but that didn't stop him from fighting for victory.
"Smoke" made a quick recovery from 43rd place on the grid and by lap 40 he was already inside the top-10. He steadily moved up until being in contention up front, where Carl Edwards had looked as the man to beat for most of the afternoon.
Stewart first led on lap 77 when those ahead of him pitted and he ran a couple of laps longer, showing good fuel mileage from early on. When the caution came out for the fifth time on lap 159, 41 from the checkered flag, Edwards led the field into the pits. Although Stewart had lost pole position, he didn't lose the benefit of having the first pit-stall and with a quick stop he was able to make the most of it, coming out ahead of Edwards to lead the pack on the following double-file restart.
With 35 laps remaining the green flag waved for the last time and it looked unlikely that the leaders would be able to go the distance without stopping for fuel again. As laps went by Stewart continued to lead but the lack of cautions started to show red numbers for those making fuel calculations, including Stewart's team.
Kasey Kahne put pressure on Stewart for a while, until he decided to pit for a splash-and -go. Immediately Stewart started saving fuel, while behind him both Edwards and Jimmie Johnson had being doing so for a while already.
With five laps to go Stewart began to switch off his engine on the long front stretch, to try to save enough to make it to the end. Not only he succeeded at it, but also he still had enough gas to do a couple of burnouts after taking and impressive and well-deserved win.
"That was just good coaching from Darian [Grubb, crew chief]," said Stewart about the last stint of the race. "I mean, Darian Grubb was giving me the intervals and just kept me running the pace he wanted me to run.
"It's hard you hate to have to do that and you hate to be in that situation but that's kind of the situation the weather put us in there. We're just thankful we could make it. That's due to Hendrick horsepower and their engine department. They make good power and they make good mileage too."
Once believed to be the king of fuel saving in NASCAR, Edwards finished second scoring his best result of the season after leading more than half of the distance. Jimmie Johnson had overtaken him with two laps to go but the reigning champion ran out of fuel on the last lap, allowing the Roush Fenway racer to regain the place.
"I didn't think Tony could save that much fuel, but he did a really good job," Edwards said. "Our car was getting great fuel mileage all day. I'm just really proud of my guys. We were great on pit road – Tony beat us off of pit road that last stop by about three-quarters of a car length or something, but that's primarily because of his pit stall
"But my guys did a great job. They stepped it up. We ran up front all day. I think we led the most laps. That's a good step. I'd really like to be out there with the trophy, but it's good for points."
David Reutimann made the same strategy work for him finishing third, while Jeff Gordon, who had struggled most of the day despite starting up front, made the most of a strategy switch on the last caution. When the leaders pitted for the last time Gordon stayed out to lead for a few laps, gambling on a possible rain.
Although it actually rained for a while, it was not enough to stop the race. But those extra laps he stayed out allowed him to pit later than the leaders in order to have more fuel for the closing laps, helping him claim a good fourth-place finish.
Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five recovering from a plug problem to score his sixth consecutive top-10 finish, which now promotes him to fourth in the driver standings.
Marcos Ambrose was sixth also gambling on fuel and passing Johnson on the last lap. The reigning champion had charged back from a penalty for entering the pits while they were closed, after leading the race for 31 laps early on.
Juan Pablo Montoya recovered from being a lap down to make his fuel-gamble pay off with eighth place ahead of Jeff Burton and Sam Hornish Jr. Behind them Greg Biffle was the best of those who pitted following the last caution, taking home an 11th-place finish.
Among the top-12 in the standings the biggest loser of the day was Denny Hamlin, who finished several laps down after his car switched off twice in the first 13 laps due to fuel pressure problems. He slid down to 12th in the points, while Mark Martin, who was among the first to pit for fuel in the closing laps, finished 19th and is now out of the top-12 in the standings.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was invisible for most of the day and he finished down in 27th place on his second weekend alongside new crew chief Lance McGrew.RESULTS:
Pos Driver Make Laps
1. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 200
2. Carl Edwards Ford 200
3. David Reutimann Toyota 200
4. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 200
5. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 200
6. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 200
7. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 200
8. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 200
9. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 200
10. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 200
11. Greg Biffle Ford 200
12. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 200
13. Jamie McMurray Ford 200
14. Casey Mears Chevrolet 200
15. Kasey Kahne Dodge 200
16. Matt Kenseth Ford 200
17. Michael Waltrip Toyota 200
18. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 200
19. Mark Martin Chevrolet 200
20. Reed Sorenson Dodge 200
21. Brian Vickers Toyota 200
22. Kyle Busch Toyota 200
23. Joey Logano Toyota 200
24. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 200
25. Elliott Sadler Dodge 200
26. David Ragan Ford 200
27. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 200
28. Bobby Labonte Ford 200
29. Paul Menard Ford 200
30. AJ Allmendinger Dodge 199
31. Robby Gordon Toyota 199
32. Scott Speed Toyota 199
33. Regan Smith Chevrolet 198
34. David Stremme Dodge 198
35. John Andretti Chevrolet 198
36. Dexter Bean Dodge 196
37. Kurt Busch Dodge 182
38. Denny Hamlin Toyota 178
39. Sterling Marlin Dodge 56
40. Dave Blaney Toyota 37
41. Joe Nemechek Toyota 36
42. David Gilliland Chevrolet 34
43. Patrick Carpentier Toyota 32