TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Tony Stewart was the first driver convicted of dipping below NASCAR's out-of-bounds line, learning a valuable lesson in 2001 at Daytona that he's carried with him the last seven years.
So when Regan Smith slid under the line Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway to finish first, Stewart was certain he'd be awarded his first victory of the season.
NASCAR agreed with him, and Stewart made his first trip to Talladega's Victory Lane in 20 career starts. But Smith was adamant he'd done nothing wrong, arguing that the two-time series champion forced him below the line in a desperate blocking attempt.
"You're darn right I did. I've lost Daytona 500s, I've lost races here at Talladega because somebody blocked," Stewart said. "That's the name of the game. There's always been people blocking. The nice thing is I was actually on the right end of it this time.
"Trust me, I've got no regrets about what I did. I did exactly what I needed to do to win the race, and it worked out."
Smith was in second and trailed Stewart for the final three laps, and the rookie made one attempt to grab his first career victory by ducking inside of Stewart to attempt a pass.
Stewart wouldn't relent, moving with Smith down the track until Smith dove below the yellow line to make the pass. He moved back onto the racing surface in front of Stewart and cruised to the finish line.
NASCAR reviewed the move -- a driver is allowed to make the pass if officials believe he was forced under the line -- and declared it illegal. Smith went with Dale Earnhardt Inc. president Max Siegel to argue the decision, but was rebuffed and dropped to 18th in the final finishing order.
"We just watched the tape. They can argue about it for five years, they're not going to change the decision. That's not how NASCAR works," Smith said. "I totally disagree with them 110 percent. I clearly moved to the outside, moved back to the inside. Tony made a move to the high side and made a move to the bottom side.
"My nose was in there. The only other option I had was to wreck him."
The ruling helped Stewart snap a 43-race winless streak dating to Watkins Glen last year and allowed him to cross Talladega off his list of tracks where he'd failed to earn a win. Talladega has taunted him for 10 years, as Stewart finished second a maddening six times.
It looked as if he'd again come up short in his final race here with Joe Gibbs Racing, especially after he was caught in a Friday accident when Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli decided to fix the damaged car instead of moving to the backup, and the No. 20 crew worked late Friday night making the repairs.
Then a poor qualifying effort on Saturday -- Stewart started 34th -- made some wonder if the team had made the right decision in sticking with the damaged car.
Stewart proved everyone wrong on Sunday with flawless strategy that helped him avoid a late 12-car accident and execute a perfect restart when Smith and two of his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates were lurking behind him on the final sprint to the finish.
"I knew with three DEI cars behind me, it was going to be tough to hold on," Stewart said.
Stewart got the jump, but smartly made sure he didn't pull too far out and give the DEI contingent the opportunity to gang up and blow past him. Then he blocked Smith the rest of the way, only letting up when Smith went below the yellow line.
There was concern in his voice as he questioned whether Smith would be awarded the win, but he quickly started the celebration when his spotter gave the "20 is the winner" declaration.
"Man, it's one thing to get back to Victory Lane -- but to do it at Talladega -- this is one of four places I haven't won a Cup race, and talk
Bobby Labonte was sixth, followed by Scott Riggs, Robby Gordon, points leader Jimmie Johnson and Elliott Sadler.
about one to win," Stewart said. "I wanted to win here for so long."
A NASCAR-record 28 drivers led and there were 31 lead changes. The race also featured several tire failures and lived up to its reputation as the "wild card" of the 10 Chase events. Because of its white-knuckle racing conditions, Talladega is the one Chase race every driver fears will ruin his title hopes.
It most certainly did for Denny Hamlin, who was taken to a Birmingham hospital after his tire exploded while he was leading and his car slammed into the outside wall. He finished 39th and dropped to last in the Chase field.
And it may very well have sunk the Roush Fenway Racing trio of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, who were at the front of a 12-car accident with 16 laps to go. It started when Edwards tried to give Biffle a shove to the front, but the bump caused Biffle to spin into Kenseth as all three Roush Fenway Racing cars crashed.
The carnage spread to Chase drivers Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch, but Johnson deftly maneuvered through the wreckage and pushed his lead in the standings to 72 points over Edwards. Biffle is in third, 77, out and Stewart jumped four spots with the victory to seventh.
"Hopefully this will give us a little momentum over the last few races and get us into the top five where we belong," Zipadelli said.
Edwards immediately accepted responsibility for the accident that sunk several Chase drivers.
"I was just pushing Greg as hard as I could. This is my fault, I apologize to everyone caught up in the wreck," Edwards said. "It's my fault. I feel bad I took my teammates out. I know Matt's mad, and I'm sure Greg is mad. I always worry about the idiots when I come here and today it was me."
Although most everyone agreed Edwards was at fault, the drivers seemed resigned to the Talladega conditions playing a role.
"Same old Talladega," said Biffle, winner of the first two Chase races. "This will hurt us in the points, but we've got six more. We knew this one was the wild card ... you just can't expect anything out of Talladega."
"He made a mistake and tore up most of the field," Harvick said. "It's Talladega, you have a 50-50 opportunity to come here and miss the wreck and today we got in it."