Tony Stewart seemed on target to score his first top-five finish of the season Saturday night at Richmond, then mayhem ensued.
Stewart became one of the victims of the chaos of the Toyota Owners 400 green-white-checkered finish. He was fifth at lap 400 but got bumped and thumped – primarily by Kurt Busch – in the two-lap dash to the finish and wound up a sour 18th.
Among the results, which included an irritated Stewart confronting Busch after the race, was a failure to make a point-standings gain on a night when the Chevrolet driver could have reasonably expected to make a rise. He is 64 points out of Chase qualification nine races into the season.
“He just rammed right into us there at the end,” Stewart said of Busch. “It hadn’t been a great weekend, but we had made some adjustments and were actually going to leave here with a decent finish until everything that happened at the end.”
Busch, who hit at least two cars in the final laps, said, “I got hit from behind, and everybody was slamming everybody. It was chaos.”
Juan Pablo Montoya seemed set to claim his first oval-track win as he led Kevin Harvick with four laps to go. But Brian Vickers crashed in the third turn, causing a caution and pushing the race into overtime. The leaders pitted for tires to be better prepared for the two-lap dash, and Harvick emerged from the traffic jam to win the race.
The mix of traffic over the closing laps had drivers with fresh tires and drivers with very old tires, so it was clear that there would be a certain tone of chaos about the finish. Stewart, who pitted for two tires to gain track position, was caught up in that madness.
Earlier in the race, Stewart lost control of his car and slid into Jimmie Johnson, pushing Johnson into a slide. Stewart accepted responsibility for the incident, and he rallied from the slight damage to rise to 11th place before the final caution turned the tables for everybody.
Through nine races, Stewart has only one top-10 finish, and he’s tied for 21st in points with Mark Martin, who has run only eight races.
Next up is Talladega Superspeedway, not one of Stewart’s favorite tracks but one where he needs to run well to reverse a tough season.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.