Tony Stewart (AP)
CONCORD, N.C. -- Tony Stewart won his first race as a team owner Saturday night, breaking through for a $1 million payday with a victory in the annual All-Star race.
Stewart passed Matt Kenseth with two laps to go in a thrilling final 10-lap shootout to win for the first time in 11 All-Star event starts. It was the first victory since he left Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last year, after two championships and 10 successful seasons, to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.
In just six months, Smoke has turned his new toy into a championship contender.
He came into the race second in the Sprint Cup Series standings -- surprising because most people predicted a rocky first year for a driver accustomed to winning. Instead, he's put both himself and teammate Ryan Newman (eighth in points) in position for berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Both have been closing in on Victory Lane for the past month, and Stewart won the race to give the organization its first victory dating to its 2002 debut as Haas CNC Racing.
The win at Lowe's Motor Speedway was in front of co-owner Gene Haas, who was at the track for the first time since the completion of a 16-month federal prison term for tax fraud.
"Man, he's not going to miss a week now," Stewart said. "He gets here and we win a race."
Stewart became the second driver/owner to win the All-Star race, joining Geoff Bodine, the 1994 winner.
His crew urged him to the climb the fence in celebration -- a tradition he started several years ago -- but the driver who turns 38 next week declined.
His crew climbed for him.
Kenseth finished second and was followed by Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.
The format of the Sprint-sponsored event was once again changed, this time to cut the 100-lap race into four segments that culminated with a 10-lap sprint to the finish. It was a nod to races past, which had a history of dramatic dash-for-the-cash finishes.
It didn't disappoint.
After a follow-the-leader parade for most of the first three segments, the action picked up at the drop of the flag of the final shootout. Kyle Busch used a three-wide pass to dart from fourth to first, aggressive driving that slowed the cars behind him. Denny Hamlin ran into the back of Jimmie Johnson, sending Johnson into a spin that he masterfully saved from a race-ending accident.
A caution period set up another restart, and this time Jeff Gordon raced to the front. A hard-charging Ryan Newman decided to enter the action with a three-wide move to the outside, and Gordon and Kyle Busch touched at least once before all three cars collided.
It sent Gordon into a spin through the grass then back up across the track, where he crashed into the outside wall to end his race.
"It's the All-Star event. That's just a bunch of guys racing really, really hard," Gordon said. "I heard three-wide right at the last second. I was always wide open."
Kenseth eventually moved to the front, but he and Busch knew Stewart was coming quickly as the laps wound down. Stewart was third on the final restart with five laps to go, and made several charges for the lead before finally getting past Kenseth with two laps remaining.
The late-race action moved the attention back to the track after a week spent discussing Jeremy Mayfield's indefinite suspension for failing a random drug test.
Despite his ban from the race track, Mayfield was on track property early Saturday night, complete with camera crew in tow, as he watched J.J. Yeley drive the Mayfield Motorsports entry to a 22nd-place finish in the preliminary race prior to the main event.
Mayfield spoke with reporters who found him in the infield, insisting his positive test was not because of illegal drug use. Instead, Mayfield said it was the combination of a prescription drug, which he would not identify, and Claritin-D, which he said he used to combat allergies at Richmond that were "really, really bad."
Hours before the race, a plane pulling a "Free Jeremy" banner circled the track in an apparent nod of support to the first driver suspended under NASCAR's toughened policy.
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