Seeing Through Smoke: The 2009 Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race
Entering 2009, Tony Stewart was 0-for-10 in the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Stewart departed Joe Gibbs Racing - the team which helped Stewart win two championships - to form Stewart-Haas Racing with underdog co-owner Gene Haas prior to the 2009 season, and many expected the operation to struggle. Entering the All-Star Race, however, Stewart had five top-five finishes in 11 races.
"We'd been running well before the All-Star Race, but I don't think any of us had an expectation of when we thought we'd win a race," Stewart recalled. "I felt in my heart that the team was capable of winning a race in the first year at some point, but I never would've dreamed it was going to be one of the biggest races of the year, especially in our backyard."
Stewart lined up 15th for his maiden All-Star tilt as a team owner. "Smoke" wasn't among the favorites for much of the night. He stayed inside the top 10, however, and started fifth for the final 10-lap dash for the cash. Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth made up the front row.
Kyle Busch took the green flag fourth and wedged his car between the race-leading mounts of Kenseth and Gordon entering Turn 1. Catching the front row by surprise, Busch sped to the top spot with nine laps remaining.
Busch, Gordon and Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate, emerged as the primary contenders for the win.
It was going to take a wreck involving all three to give Stewart or Kenseth anything more than a puncher's chance at the $1 million winner's check. As Gordon and Busch maneuvered side-by-side down the backstretch, Newman forced his way into the fracas. He pushed Busch's car past Gordon's as the three leaders rocketed into Turn 3. Newman then jumped to the outside of Busch and Gordon, forcing the trio to take up every bit of room available on the track in Turn 4.
Stuck in the middle, Busch moved low to side-draft Gordon in hopes of gaining a small advantage. Gordon, at the same time, slid up half a lane off the bottom groove and hit Busch's car flush with the right side.
The contact knocked Gordon's car sideways and as the four-time series champion spun - eventually hitting the outside wall head-on - Busch slid into Newman, who pounded the frontstretch wall.
Suddenly, there were two new names trailing Busch at the head of the field: Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart.
Kenseth cleared Busch for the lead with six laps to go, but the side-by-side battle enabled Stewart to close to within a car length of the two leaders. A caution with five laps remaining gave Busch a second chance at passing Kenseth. He instead lost second place to Stewart.
With four laps to go, Stewart got beside Kenseth but broke loose and had to lift off the throttle. Stewart went back to the bottom groove and gained ground with three to go. Two from the finish, Kenseth ran his fastest lap of the night.
It didn't matter. Kenseth's car pushed up the track entering Turn 1, Stewart pounced and drove away for a pass that gave his team $1 million instead of the $200,000 reserved for second.
"We were too loose the whole night and didn't have a shot to win," Kenseth recalled. "We tightened it up for the last segment and when we inherited the lead, we were just way too tight to hold (Stewart) off. It was a very disappointing ending for us. That's the great thing about the All-Star Race: It's all about winning. Second feels as bad as last."
First felt pretty good for Stewart. The victory erased any doubts that Stewart-Haas Racing was a legitimate NASCAR operation. Stewart and Haas were race-winning owners and Stewart's decision to leave Gibbs proved to be a calculated risk that paid dividends.
"There were a lot of people who didn't know what to think about what we were trying to do," Stewart said. "I think (the All-Star Race win) really sent a message about how dedicated our organization is to being successful. It kind of quieted a lot of the naysayers and a lot of people who were on the fence trying to decide if I'd made a good decision or not (to become a team owner). I think standing there on the stage and getting the check was a pretty good statement."