TALLADEGA, Ala. - Tony Stewart crossed the finish line second at Talladega Superspeedway for the seventh time in his Sprint Cup career in Sunday's Amp Energy 500. He also got his first Cup victory here.
If that sounds confusing to you, think about how Regan Smith feels.
Smith passed Stewart coming to the checkered flag, but NASCAR ruled he did it by going below the yellow "out-of-bounds" line on the inside of this 2.66-mile track's tri-oval. As a result, NASCAR declared Stewart the winner, moved Smith back to an 18th-place finish and set off an argument that should last all the way through the upcoming race weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"Anything below the yellow line is out of bounds," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said after the confusing finish of a typically wild Talladega race that featured 64 lead changes and nearly that many wrecked race cars.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"You cannot improve your position anytime you are below the yellow line. In our judgment, he improved his position. ... In the drivers' meeting here, it was clearly stated you cannot improve your position below the yellow line."
Smith said he felt that Stewart had forced him below the line, but Hunter said that's not how NASCAR saw it. Regardless, Smith said, it was his understanding that when the race is on its final lap it's "anything goes."
Where would Smith, a Cup rookie looking for his first win for a team that's seeking sponsorship for his car for 2009, get an idea like that?
Well, maybe from Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of communications, who after a similar controversy following a Truck series race in Daytona in February 2007 said, "When the drivers can see the checkered flag, you can get all you can get."
When asked about that apparent contradiction Sunday evening, Hunter said that apparently is now not the rule. "I don't recall making that statement and I'm not going to comment on it," he said.
So it was Stewart celebrating on a day when Jimmie Johnson also rallied from a lap down to get a leg up on what could be his third straight Sprint Cup title.
Johnson's team was worried about its engine, so despite the fact this was an impound race it did some checking, and that meant the No. 48 Chevrolet had to start at the rear of the field. He lost the lead draft right from the start and fell a lap down by Lap 25, but got that back on a subsequent caution and fought his way back.
Johnson then dodged a crash on Lap 174 when the two drivers closest to him in the standings, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, made contact in Turn 3 as Edwards tried to bump-draft his Roush Fenway Racing teammate toward the front of the field.
"I was just pushing Greg as hard as I could," Edwards said. "It was my fault. I guess we got in exactly the wrong spot going into (Turn) 3. I feel bad I took my teammates out. ...Sometimes things like this happen.
"I was worried about idiots when I came here and it turned out to be my fault."
That wreck also took out Chase drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. Jeff Gordon had been wrecked earlier when David Reutimann cut a tire and sent Gordon into the outside wall on the backstretch.
What all that adds up to is a 72-point lead for Johnson over Edwards, who finished 29th, and a 77-point edge on Biffle, who was 24th Sunday. Jeff Burton, who also dodged the big wreck to finish fourth, inched back into the title picture, too. He's 99 points back.
As for the ruling that gave Stewart the win, the 33rd of his career but his first his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing and his first in a Toyota, Johnson said if he'd been in Smith's position he would have tried the same thing.
"Without a doubt," Johnson said. "Especially with the rumors floating around this morning before the race."
Those "rumors," Johnson said, were spreading Sunday morning in the garage after the finish of Saturday's Truck race here. Johnson said drivers went around asking about the rule, but said nobody brought it up at the drivers' meeting because they thought they might have information they could use.
Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief, saw it another way.
"Obviously, somebody knew what the rule was," he said. "They went below the yellow line and they got penalized."
Stewart was overjoyed at finally getting a win at Talladega, where he'd come so close so many times, and to finally win in a season in which he'd also seen several chances to win slip away.
"To finally get that first on of the year and to do it here at Talladga, man, people don't understand what it means to win here," he said.
As for the call that sent him to victory lane, Stewart shirked the issue.
"All I'm going to say about that is they never said that at the drivers' meeting," he said, referring to the "anything goes" rumors. "I don't know it was ever understood anywhere. I sat in the drivers' meeting like everyone else did. ...If you hear it in the drivers' meeting, I guess we'll all stand corrected."