But the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers failed to seal the deal -- again -- at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Jeff Burton and his Richard Childress Racing teammates were there to capitalize.
Burton scored his first victory at Bristol Motor Speedway and the first win of the season for Chevrolet, leading teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer to the first 1-2-3 sweep in RCR history by pouncing when the JGR drivers faltered at the very end Sunday.
"We did the little things right," Burton said. "That's the sign that this team's matured. That's the sign of a team that's ready to take advantage of situations. I won't lose sleep tonight because somebody says, 'We had a faster car.'
"All I know is we've got the trophy."
A year ago, Stewart and Hamlin combined to lead 434 of the 504 laps here before mechanical failures sabotaged seemingly surefire wins.
This time, Stewart, Hamlin and Kyle Busch combined to lead 372 of the 506 laps, but Hamlin's sixth-place finish was all they had to show for it.
Busch's power steering failed, causing him to crash while he was leading midway through the race. Then Harvick wrecked Stewart with two laps to go, setting up a two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.
All Hamlin had to do was hold on for two laps and the win was his. But a fuel pickup problem on the restart allowed Burton to race past him and pull his RCR teammates along for the sweep.
"It's just a shame. We had another win taken away," Hamlin said. "Our cars just won't pick up fuel. Everyone else's does. It cost us the race. I could have held those guys off, as fast as the car went after it picked back up.
"This is so frustrating to have days like this."
Stewart led a race-high 267 laps -- 10 more than he did in this event last year -- but again fell short because of questionable strategy and the contact with Harvick.
Stewart was chugging along toward the victory, trying to hold off the hard-charging Harvick and Hamlin, when Brian Vickers crashed to bring out a caution with 11 laps to go. Stewart thought he should pit for tires, but was overruled by crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who wasn't sure there were enough laps left to warrant coming in.
So Stewart stayed out -- along with Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- while everyone else on the lead lap headed to the pits. Zipadelli instantly questioned the call.
"I don't know if that was right or wrong," he radioed Stewart, "but it's in your hands now."
Stewart was great on the restart with five laps to go, but Hamlin quickly chased him down and moved into first. Harvick, who restarted fourth with fresh tires, also closed quickly on Stewart's bumper.
But as Harvick moved in for the pass, the cars made contact and Stewart went spinning into the wall.
"I just lost it there underneath of Tony. Just made a mistake," Harvick said. "They can take it for what it's worth, and move on."
Stewart, who finished 14th, was livid on his radio after the accident but had calmed by the time he climbed from his car and was taking partial responsibility for the contact.
"I thought I left him enough room," Stewart said. "I'm sure somehow it was my fault. I'm sorry I got in his way."
The two are terrific friends off the track, and, ironically, are scheduled to appear together on Stewart's Sirius Satellite Radio program on Monday night when Stewart is supposed to have his back waxed for charity.
Any anger between the two should subside before the show, but Harvick may have a lingering beef with Stewart's spotter. After the accident, Harvick said he sent his spotter to apologize to Stewart's, but the exchange quickly turned ugly.
"The first thing his spotter did was say he was going to whip somebody's [behind] and if Tony didn't do it, then he was going to do it," Harvick said. "If his spotter wants to have a bad attitude about it, then we can all come down here and we'll handle it.
"Nobody is going to have a good attitude about getting wrecked. I understand that from Tony's standpoint. But his spotter was out of line and I didn't appreciate it."
Burton was the benefactor of all the action, sliding past Harvick and Stewart when the two made contact to move into second place. The wreck brought out a caution that led to the two-lap overtime sprint to the finish, with Hamlin now out front and Burton right behind him.
Hamlin's car failed to take off on the restart, and Burton raced past him on the high side of the bullring with his teammates following all the way to the finish line.
"Harvick and Stewart got together there, and that opened the door for me to squeeze in," Burton said. "When that happened, I viewed that as the opportunity. That was the door that opened. If we had any shot to win, then we had to jump through it."
Busch, the series points leader and defending race winner, had a strong car most of the day but lost his power steering shortly after moving into the lead. Unable to steer the car as it seemed headed straight for the wall, he instead navigated it into a spin that allowed him to finish the race.
He wound up 17th, but retained his hold atop the standings and now leads Greg Biffle by 30 points. But it was the second straight race the power steering failed on a JGR car -- Hamlin's went last week in Atlanta -- and Busch called for the team to find a new manufacturer on the steering boxes.
Dale Jarrett finished 37th in the final start in a points race of his 24 year career. The former series champion is retiring this season, and will race one last time in the All-Star race in May.
"Well, it wasn't the finish I would have liked," Jarrett said. "But I really can't be too upset when you take into consideration the kind of career I have been fortunate enough to have."
Information from The Associated Press contributed to this story.