The Inside Line: Stewart now a Chase contender with Dover win

Tony Stewart's frustrating season might have come to an end after picking up a much-needed win on Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

Stewart, who was not that much of a factor for most of the 400-mile race, passed Juan Pablo Montoya for the lead with just three laps to go. He snapped a 30-race winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series. His previous victory came in July 2012 at Daytona.

Dover marked the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. After the Sept. 7 race at Richmond, the 12-driver field for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will be determined.

Prior to Dover, Stewart's best finish of the season was seventh, which came last week in the 600-mile race at Charlotte. His victory moved him up four positions to 16th in the point standings.

"God, as much as I hate to say it, it's good to be back in the media center," Stewart jokingly said to reporters at the start of his post-race press conference.

Stewart's win came at the expense of Jimmie Johnson's mishap. NASCAR penalized Johnson when he jumped the restart with 19 laps remaining. He was running second to Montoya at the time. The five-time series champion finished 17th after he had led 143 laps.

"I feel bad for Jimmie because I don't think that's what he deserved," Stewart admitted. "You work hard all day to put yourself in a position to try to win the race at the end. You don't want it coming down to a decision that NASCAR has to make. But there can be some adjustments made to the restart zone.

"In my opinion, if you lengthen that restart zone and give the leader more flexibility of where they pick the restart up at, it takes away that opportunity for the second-place guy to take advantage of the restarts. Jimmie is not a guy who messes with the system and takes advantage of systems, anyway. That's why it's so bad to see him get penalized in this situation, because he's somebody that plays fair by the rules, and doesn't abuse things like that."

Johnson disagreed with NASCAR's call.

Stewart won both races at Dover during the 2000 season, but had not been to victory lane at this one-mile, concrete-surfaced racetrack until Sunday.

Right now, Stewart is 33 points behind 10th-place driver Paul Menard. He is the only driver between 11th-20th in points that has a win this season. The three-time Sprint Cup champion is hopeful of making the Chase for the seventh consecutive year, but he's more focused on keeping his team headed in the right direction. Stewart did not qualify for the Chase in 2006, the year after he won his second series title.

"I've done this enough and been in the Chase enough that being in the Chase is not a novelty for me," he said. "I don't care about being in the Chase unless I have an opportunity to win the championship."

While Stewart drove into victory lane, his teammates, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick, had a tough day at Dover. Newman was involved in a wreck with David Gilliland late in the race and ended up finishing 36th. Patrick finished four laps behind in 24th.

In his fifth season as a team owner, Stewart has his work cut out with all three of his teams. Newman is 20th in points and Patrick 29th.

"As much as this is a great win and a great victory for us, and great momentum builder for our organization, I will go back and instead of just focusing on the fact that we won, it's going to be, what happened in Ryan's day, what happened in Danica's day," Stewart said.

"And it does make you have to play cheerleader. I like looking at cheerleaders. I think they are hot. I'm not much of one, but that's my role. I can't sit there and go down on a shop floor and tell these guys what to do to make changes to the car to make it better. My job as a car owner is to go down there and keep the morale of the guys good. I would say 'Zippy' (competition director Greg Zipadelli) has done a much better job of that than I've had. I've struggled with it."

With Stewart's No. 14 team struggling a third of the way into the season, there had been rumors of crew chief Steve Addington being replaced. In Addington's defense, Stewart lashed out at the media when he was asked about any possible changes being made in his organization.

"It ticks me off that I've got to sit here and go through this (expletive) because of you guys (media)," he said. "If you're going to put something in there that there's going to -- possibility of somebody moving around, you might want to talk to the guys that write the checks, the guys that work there, and find out the facts before you guys go throwing darts on the dartboard.

"I'll be honest, it (ticked) me off because it was a big distraction to my team, my organization. It kept us from doing our job because people are hearing humors and reading what you guys write, and it was totally inaccurate and unprofessional in my opinion."

Addington has served as Stewart's crew chief since the start of the 2012 season. Dover marked their fourth win since they have been together.

"It's really big," Addington said. "It's not a fix-all for what we've got going on. I think that it's a step in the right direction. We've got to keep our heads down and keep digging, and I think that everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing understands that."

Stewart has generally been one of the hottest drivers in Sprint Cup during the summer months.

Maybe his summer has started early this year.