“Smoke” rises to occasion with big Dover triumph

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Tony Stewart had been soldiering through a dismal Sprint Cup season, and he figured that he was going to soldier through a trying Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

“Yesterday when we finished [final practice], I’ll be 100 percent perfectly honest…I was preparing for a very long day today,” said Stewart, who entered the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks in 20th place in the standings.

“I wasn’t prepared to be sitting here…I honestly didn’t think we could get there from where we ended up [in final practice] yesterday. But I’m proud to be sitting here saying that I was very wrong and happy that I was wrong.”

Stewart had finished no better than 20th in his last four races at the “Monster Mile,” but found himself in a position to battle for the win after Jimmie Johnson was penalized for jumping the final restart of the day with 19 laps to go.

That left Juan Pablo Montoya in the lead, but Stewart charged toward the Colombian and with three laps left, he passed him on the outside and went on to his first victory of the season.

See what happens when you keep battling?

“There’s been a lot of dejected guys all year, and disappointed guys all year, but that’s why we want them working at Stewart‑Haas Racing, too, because the way we have been running, we want them to be disappointed and dejected,” said Stewart of his team’s trying 2013 campaign.

“But nobody is walking around with their heads down. They are all trying to find a solution and that’s what makes days like today so special, when you have guys that just do not quit and they refuse to give up.”

With one bright day, the year has changed for the three-time Cup champion. He jumped four spots in the standings to 16th, but more importantly, his win now puts him in the discussion for a possible wild-card berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The two drivers between 11th and 20th in the championship that have the most wins get those particular spots, and as of now, he’s the only one in that bracket with a win. Of course, Stewart wants more than that. He’d much rather be solidly in the Top 10 and also help his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick turn their own efforts around as well.

“We realize that this could put [my team] in contention and make the Chase – that’s not good enough,” he said. “I want to get this whole program turned around to where all three drivers have a feeling and an opportunity to go to the racetrack every week and feeling like they have an opportunity to go out and have a good result at the end of the day.”

Nevertheless, “Smoke” has some momentum on his side with a Top-10 result at Charlotte last weekend and now a win in his pocket in Delaware. Perhaps he and Stewart-Haas Racing are ready to make a run as the summer comes along once again.