KANSAS CITY, Kan. | Tony Stewart needed a win to stop his slide in the championship standings.
With a gutsy call on the final pit stop, Stewart grabbed the lead Sunday at Kansas Speedway and held on over the last 26 laps to prevent Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson from pulling away in the race for the Sprint Cup title.
Stewart’s fourth win of the season - but first in eight races - moved him up one spot in the standings to fourth. He was 106 points behind leader Mark Martin at the start of the race but sliced the margin to 67.
“That’s almost half,” Stewart said in Victory Lane.
Martin, the pole-sitter, finished seventh and maintained his lead in the standings. He’s up 18 points over three-time defending series champion Johnson, who finished ninth after a series of bad pit calls took him out of contention.
The final outcome came down to strategy, and it started to shape as a race that would be decided on fuel mileage. Then Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led 41 laps early before bad breaks ruined his day, brought out the final caution of the race when an engine problem spilled oil on the track.
The leaders went to pit road debating with their crew chiefs whether to take two or four tires on what was likely going to be the final chance to gain track position.
Greg Biffle went to pit road as the leader, while Stewart was second. Biffle and his crew still didn’t seem sure of what to do as he pulled into his spot, but Stewart crew chief Darian Grubb was confident two tires were the answer.
Stewart raced off pit road into the lead, with Kasey Kahne and Johnson in pursuit. Both also took two tires.
Biffle, the first driver to take four tires, restarted in fourth.
Stewart took off on the restart with 26 laps to go, and all the drivers on four tires quickly sliced through the field. But it was Jeff Gordon who made up the most ground. He was closing in on Stewart but simply ran out laps to catch him and settled for second.
“He was getting bigger,” Stewart said of seeing Gordon in his rearview mirror. “The big thing was not to drive the tires off. We had a little left, but we didn’t leave too much out there.”
Stewart also praised Grubb for making the right call with the race on the line.
“He’s like that. He’s a little gutsy. That’s a good thing,” Stewart said. “You don’t question him. You just know it’s the right thing to do.”
Biffle finished third and admitted he overruled Greg Erwin on the last stop when the crew chief called for two tires.
“I know what I did wrong, I know I made a mistake,” Biffle said.
Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin, Kahne and Martin.
David Reutimann was the only non-Chase driver in the top 11 with an eighth-place finish and was followed by Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch.