Stewart races to first career Darlington victory

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- All it took was his first Darlington Raceway victory to bring out Tony Stewart's softer side.

Only two months ago, Stewart angrily blasted Goodyear after the Atlanta race, saying the company had given him "the most pathetic racing tire I've ever been on in my professional career."

But it was a joyful, smiling Stewart who praised Goodyear for its research and hard work in delivering tires that helped the Joe Gibbs Racing star to his first win Friday night on NASCAR's oldest superspeedway.

"I really want to give Goodyear a pat on the back," he said. The company made two trips since March to test tires on Darlington's slick, new surface, repaved at a cost of $7 million for the first time since 1995.

The results were absolutely perfect for Stewart.

"I'm the first one to tell them when they screw up and I want to be the first one to tell them when they do a good job, too," Stewart said.

The two-time Sprint Cup champ had never won here in 19 previous starts, four of them Nationwide events, dating to 1996.

Stewart entered the season wanting to conquer the four tracks he hadn't -- California Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and here.

He'd previously won in California and Talladega. The Darlington victory, though, may have meant the most to Stewart.

"This is one of those tracks where history goes as deep as NASCAR, and it's a great honor," he said.

Stewart led 90 of 147 laps for his fourth Nationwide victory this year and JGR's sixth straight. It was the sixth win for his No. 20 Toyota -- JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have also won in the machine -- and the eighth for Gibbs' racers.

In this one, though, Stewart was about the only one who got away unscathed, with Sprint Cup stars Carl Edwards, Busch, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin all wrecking.

"We had an awesome race car today," Stewart said. "I'm telling you, this thing was head-and-shoulders better than it was" in practices.

Stewart made it through eight cautions, two off the Nationwide's Darlington record, and a green-white-checkered finish.

Only 23 of 43 starters were still running at the end.

After David Ragan's hard crash on the backstretch, Stewart easily moved forward on the restart three laps from the end. Right behind, though, was chaos as Martin's second-place machine failed to get up to speed.

The stall collected five other cars and brought out the race's second stoppage, as it took more than 15 minutes to clean up.

"We didn't have enough gas there," said Martin, the series' career leader with 48 victories. "I apologize to everybody who got in that wreck. It's a really bad deal when a car up front doesn't take off."

None of it affected Stewart. He grabbed the lead for good with 27 laps to go when leader Kenseth pitted with a flat.

Stewart broke away from Clint Bowyer to take the checkered flag.

David Reutimann finished third, followed by Todd Bodine and Steve Wallace.

Kenseth was involved in the one of the night's ugliest accidents, slamming into the inside retaining wall. But the former Sprint Cup champion climbed out of the broken car and waved to the large crowd he was OK.

The hard crash stopped the race for about seven minutes to clean up fuel, oil and debris.

Kenseth said the crash came from him aggressively trying to get back the lap he lost earlier. "It's very frustrating. We let one get away," he said.

Kenseth wasn't the only Sprint Cup star who had trouble.

Hamlin had won the past two Nationwide races here and was a strong bet to make it three in a row. Besides winning from the pole in 2006 and 2007, Hamlin's Toyota was the quickest in practice on Darlington's fast, new blacktop.

Maybe a bit too fast, though, as Hamlin scraped the wall during afternoon qualifying and didn't make the race.

Then pole-sitter Carl Edwards' night ended after hitting the wall twice his first three laps.

Perhaps, Edwards overthought the effect of the fresh surface. He swapped starting positions with No. 2 qualifier Bowyer, moving closer to the wall. Edwards figured he'd get loose, he said, and didn't want to wreck down low amidst grid traffic.

Instead, Edwards slid against the outside wall soon after the start, cutting down a tire that failed completely two laps later.

Edwards blamed himself. "They dropped the green and I was ready to race," he said. But "I got loose and hit the wall."

Busch ran among the leaders the first two thirds of the race. But Busch, who has found his share of trouble in NASCAR this season, spun into the wall after colliding with Brad Keselowski.

An angered Busch afterward called the accident the product of "racing idiots" and vowed to act the same way in future situations.