Joliet, IL (Sports Network) - Tony Stewart picked the right time to capture his first win in the Sprint Cup Series this season.
Stewart, one of the 12 drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, conserved enough fuel and held off Kevin Harvick, another title contender, during the closing laps to win Monday's rain-delayed GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. He finished 0.9 seconds ahead of Harvick.
The two-time series champion had struggled during the latter part of the regular season, squeaking his way into the 10-race playoffs with the ninth seed. His most recent win in NASCAR's premier circuit came last October in Fontana, CA -- a Chase race at the time.
"We've had a rough year, so this is a good way to start [the Chase] off," said Stewart, who notched his 40th career victory in the series.
Stewart's win in the Chase opener this year came as redemption for last season's start in the playoffs. When New Hampshire hosted the first Chase race in 2010, Stewart held the lead until two laps remaining when he ran out of fuel and then coasted across the finish line in 24th. He went on to end his season seventh in points.
The 400-mile race at Chicagoland was scheduled for Sunday, but persistent rain forced NASCAR officials to postpone it one day. That was probably a good thing for Stewart.
"I had a migraine all day yesterday, so I'm kind of glad we didn't race," he added.
With the win, Stewart jumped seven spots in the rankings to second, as he trails new leader Harvick by just seven points. Stewart has now won at this 1.5-mile track a record three times.
Stewart and many other drivers made their last pit stops during the sixth and final caution period with just over 50 laps to go.
Harvick was one of a handful of drivers who had enough gas to get him to the finish.
"I knew I had saved a little bit of fuel in that caution and a little bit at the beginning of that run, and [the No.29 team] felt comfortable with the lap times," he said. "It was a good first race for us."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., also gambling on fuel, charged through the field during the closing laps to begin his Chase with a third-place run.
"We had really good pit stops all day long," said Earnhardt Jr., who moved up to fifth in points (-13). "These guys have worked hard to try and improve, and they really did today. The car was a bit of struggle in some parts of the race, but we made some changes at the end, and I think the car was one of the fastest ones on the track. We were saving some gas at the end, and we made it further than most."
Several Chase contenders weren't so fortunate with their fuel supply at the end. Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending series champion, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the pole sitter, each ran out of gas during the final two laps. Johnson managed to finish 10th, but Kenseth and Busch ended up one lap down in 21st and 22nd, respectively.
Johnson dropped to eighth in the standings (-16). Busch fell from the top seed to ninth (-19). Kenseth currently holds the tenth spot (-24).
Carl Edwards finished fourth, followed by Brad Keselowski and his Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch. The top-six finishers are all in the Chase.
Clint Bowyer took the seventh spot, while Ryan Newman, a title hopeful and Stewart's teammate, finished eighth. Mark Martin was ninth.
Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin took the biggest points hit in the first Chase race.
Gordon struggled with an ill-handling car throughout the day. He finished two laps down in 24th. The four-time series titleholder is now 25 points out of the lead.
Hamlin had to pit unexpectedly twice, one for a vibration issue and the other for a blown tire. He finished three laps behind in 31st. Hamlin, who finished second to Johnson in points last year, trails Harvick by 41 points.
Sunday's 300-lap race at New Hampshire is the next Chase race.
09/19 16:51:51 ET