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Tony Stewart! A brilliant rally to win Martinsville and chop Carl Edwards' lead to only eight points with three to go in the NASCAR championship

  Tony Stewart at the line, and it was darned close over Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   A desperate Tony Stewart made a hellava comeback Sunday, rallying from deep in the field on a crazy, wild, crash-filled afternoon at Martinsville Speedway to win Round Seven of the 10-race NASCAR playoffs, beating Jimmie Johnson with a daring outside pass for the lead on a restart with only three laps to go at this flat half-mile.

   Johnson had the lead on the final restart, but Stewart had a bit fresher tires and got a better restart, even though Stewart was on the outside, on a day when the inside was preferred.
   "I don't think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside…." Stewart said, almost amazed at his charge from so far behind.
    But it wasn't Stewart beating Johnson that was the story of the day – a beautiful, sunny fall afternoon.
    The story was the championship…and Stewart was the biggest part of that story too:
    – Carl Edwards, who came into the Martinsville 500 as the tour leader, had a miserable day, running 20th or worse most of the day, a lap down at times.
    -- And for most of the afternoon Matt Kenseth, who was the only top title challenger really running well, appeared on the verge of taking command of the Sprint Cup title chase. But then Kenseth got crashed out with just 35 laps to go, while running fifth, in a tussle with Kyle Busch, and spent most of the rest of the race in the garage for repairs, finishing 31st.
    -- And Stewart too was mired deep in the pack until right near the end of the race. He came into the race 19 points down to Edwards, fourth in the standings, and he appeared in no shape at all to make the charge he finally did pull out.
   But Edwards rallied too near the end, and pulled out a ninth, almost equally miraculously.
   However Stewart's rally was the more impressive. And while Edwards managed to remain atop the Sprint Cup standings, he's now just eight points ahead of Stewart, with three races to go, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.  
   "He'd better be worried," Stewart said sternly in victory lane. "He's not going to have a very easy three weeks."


Tony Stewart: just eight points behind Carl Edwards....about eight finishing positions, with three races yet to run (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Edwards bristled at that.  "He's wound up…he's in victory lane. we'll see what happens at Texas," Edwards replied.
   "But then Tony runs as well as we do at Texas.
   "I'm glad Tony is issuing that challenge. I'm up for a challenge."
   "I don't care what he says, I don't care what he says…we're going after him for this championship," Stewart came back quickly.
   Edwards, though, may be a bit chastened now about the title, which coming in here looked to be his to win. 
   "Tony has won three chase races, and I said he was one of the guys that had a shot at this championship and he's showing it," Edwards said.
   "We said if we could come out of here with a top-10 and the points lead that would be like a win. And we did. But we've got some work to do to figure out how to run better here before we come back (next spring)."
   Edwards was briefly blackflagged by NASCAR at one point late, when he was three-wide on a restart. But NASCAR a few moments later rescinded the penalty flag.
  "NASCAR had told me to pass Jeff Burton (while lining up for the restart), and I was trying to get up there," Edwards explained.
   "I don't think Jeff knew what was going on right then, and I could tell that because he almost turned me around down in turn one. I'm glad he didn't turn me.
   "I'm thankful NASCAR rescinded that penalty; it's not often they rescind a black flag."
    As poorly as he ran, Edwards conceded "We did not deserve to finish ninth. Bob (Osborne, his crew chief) did a good job of keep me calm.
   "We were so bad…..I was settled with the fact that we'd finish 20th or 25th. But we stuck with it….and I'm glad we can move on.
    "Now we're going to Texas, and I'm real happy about going to Texas.
   "But Tony Stewart is going to be tough. He earned every spot today. He did what he had to do today."
    For the final restart on lap 498, Johnson and Stewart were on the front row, Johnson with the preferred inside line, and Jeff Gordon right behind Johnson.
    "I was more concerned about Jeff than Tony on the restart," Johnson said. "I thought I'd clear Tony.
   "And I thought that eight tires would be better than four (by leaning hard on Stewart in the corner). But then I decided against it….Tony hadn't hit me all day. So I couldn't do it.
   "I did give him a shot down in four though."
    "He did give me a shot down there, but not hard enough to take me out," Stewart said. "That all shows the class Jimmie Johnson has."
    Gordon, who wound up third, said the race "was crazy, absolutely crazy."
    And Gordon was surprised Stewart could get around Johnson: "I didn't think he could pass Jimmie on the outside.
   "But when the going gets tough, you've got to watch out for Tony Stewart."
     The day was indeed crazy, right from the start, with eight crashes in the first 100 laps of the 500-lapper.   Brian Vickers, who is angling for a ride for 2012, was involved with a lot of the crashes and got called out for it. Over the four-hour race there were 18 cautions.
   "I was pretty mad all day…even though I was the only guy who didn't get in a wreck," Stewart said happily after the victory.
   The restart? "It had a little more grip up high than I thought was out there," Stewart said.



You want to try Jimmie Johnson on the high side? Be my guest. But Tony Stewart makes the pass stick, and wins Sunday's Martinsville 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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