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Stewart falls short of Darlington goal

May 14, 2012, Viv Bernstein, Special to NASCAR.COM,

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Running out of gas keeps defending Cup champion from finally winning here

As Jimmie Johnson worked to save fuel and hang onto first place in the final laps of the Bojangles Southern 500 on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, Tony Stewart lurked behind, waiting to take advantage if Johnson ran out of gas.

Given the black cloud that seemed to hover over Hendrick Motorsports this season as it struggled to earn its 200th victory, and the extra lap that was tacked on at the end of the race to ensure a green-white-checkered finish, Stewart figured Johnson was vulnerable.

"You know, considering the hurdles of the day, I'm pretty happy with a third-place run."


"I was trying to postpone it another week,'' Stewart said of the inevitable Hendrick celebration.

Had he succeeded, it would have been a celebration for Stewart instead. He finally would have crossed Darlington off the short list of race tracks where Stewart had never won a Sprint Cup event -- Kentucky, which joined the Cup series last year, and Rockingham, which was on the schedule through 2004, are the others.

But instead of Johnson running out of gas, it was Stewart who did. Still, on a night that looked like it could have been much worse, a third-place finish was hardly a disappointment.

"You know, considering the hurdles of the day, I'm pretty happy with a third-place run,'' Stewart said.

Indeed, this wasn't a textbook night for Stewart. He battled an ill-handling car through much of the first half of the race. And with no caution flags in the first 172 laps, only 14 race cars were on the lead lap as Johnson pulled away from the field. Stewart might have been lapped if a caution eventually didn't come.

"We kind of struggled there the first half of the race,'' Stewart said. "We fought loose in [Turn] 1 and 2, really tight in 3 and 4. So it's really hard to fix the balance of the race car when it's doing two different things on two different ends.

"Really proud of [crew chief] Steve Addington. He just kept throwing things at it to try to get a direction."

They figured it out in time for Stewart to race into the top five. He was putting himself in position for a run at the leaders when he faced a new problem. He broke the clutch with about 85 laps to go.

An extended stop on pit road followed, and Stewart's hopes could have ended there.

"They jacked it up, looked at it, figured out we could keep going,'' Stewart said.

So they did. A series of cautions helped Stewart make his way to second place with two laps to go for a green-white-checkered finish with Johnson.

"I still was really nervous with the 14 behind me," Johnson said. "He's been the guy week after week that can go the distance. I was trying to pace myself off of him. It worked out."

It worked out because Stewart ran out of gas before the final restart.

"We ran out of fuel coming off of [Turn] 4,'' Stewart said. "It didn't run all the way out of fuel, but it laid down enough that it didn't run a 100 percent going down into Turn 1. Once we got into 1, we got the fuel to the pickup, and we just lost our spot doing it."

Instead of racing Johnson for the win, Stewart lost a spot to Denny Hamlin. Stewart held on from there.

It was the kind of night that reminded Stewart of 2011, when he captured his third Cup title.

"It's why we won a championship last year,'' he said. "We never give up."

And it was certainly an improvement over his 24th-place showing a week ago, when Stewart went into a mocking, post-race diatribe about the wrecks associated with pack racing at restrictor-plate tracks like Talladega. It was the talk of NASCAR for much of the past week.

Now everyone will be talking about Hendrick's 200th win, and the latest sign that Johnson is primed for a run at another title. But with Stewart's fourth top-five finish of the season -- he already has two victories -- Saturday night's performance showed once again the No. 14 is likely to be in the middle of that title hunt again.