If anybody else besides Jimmie Johnson was ahead of him, Tony Stewart likely would have been in the perfect position to strike on the final lap of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Stewart, who has won 19 times at the famed 2.5-mile oval, was running in third when tonight’s race went into a green-white-checkered finish and found himself powering Johnson into the lead on the outside groove just after the restart. A push from Kurt Busch then propelled the three-time Sprint Cup champion past Kevin Harvick for second as the white flag waved.
But that was as far as “Smoke” could rise against the all-too-strong Johnson, and his bid to collect an even 20 triumphs at the “World Center of Racing” ended in a runner-up finish as a second last-lap pileup commenced behind him in the tri-oval.
“I didn’t get as good a restart as I wanted, but I think it kind of worked to our favor there,” said Stewart. “Kurt Busch gave us a really good push from behind there and that got us back to getting Jimmie the shove he needed.
“It got us out there far enough ahead to where we could worry about racing him. That is some strong Hendrick horse power up front there. You get three or four of these Hendrick cars together and they are fast…Just glad we were ahead of the carnage.”
Nonetheless, by virtue of his second-place finish tonight, Stewart has been able to climb back into the Top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings after falling out of that bracket due to back-to-back results outside the Top 20 at Sonoma and Kentucky last month.
One wonders if Stewart would be higher up in the championship if not for those two finishes, as he has collected four Top-5s since winning in early June at Dover International Speedway – a victory that now appears to have clearly jump-started his 2013 campaign.