- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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DOVER, DEL. -- It was a priceless moment, Tony Stewart struggling to get through the crowd in the back of the tent where they held the driver's meeting two hours before Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway.
"I think I'm in the race or something," the three-time champion deadpanned as he raised his hand above the fans to let NASCAR officials know he was present.
Much of the race went the same way, as Stewart spent a majority of this hot, muggy day lost in the crowd outside the top 10, where it was hard to tell if he was present or not.
Then there was a late caution that allowed him to move into the top four thanks to a strategic two-tire stop. Then five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, much to his protest, jumped the restart and was penalized.
Then Stewart found himself passing Juan Pablo Montoya for the lead with three laps to go.
And then not only was he in the race, he was in Victory Lane.
Just when you thought the season was never going to turn around for the owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, it did.
"If somebody would have told me it was going to be that way yesterday I would have told them they were crazy," a much-relieved Stewart said. "This thing was not a car that could win the race."
Not even close. Johnson appeared headed for a record eighth Dover win until the restart with 19 laps remaining. He still doesn't think he did anything wrong, insisting he tried to let leader Montoya get back around him to avoid the pass-through penalty.
It didn't happen.
A despondent crew chief Chad Knaus radioed, "They don't want you to win this race."
There probably were more than a few fans who felt that way even if NASCAR, which said it was an "easy call," didn't.
But there's no doubting this was a popular victory and good for the sport.
And Stewart doesn't care how he got here.
"I feel bad for Jimmie, because Jimmie ran good all day," he said. "He didn't deserve to be in a situation at the end, but at the same time, he knows what the rules are, and he knows that the leader has to cross the start/finish line first."
And when you're having what statistically and emotionally has been the worst season of your career, you'll take anything you can get.
"God, as much as I hate to say it, it's good to be back in the media center," said Stewart, who has a unique love-hate relationship with the media.
You can't blame him for being happy. Before Sunday, Stewart led only two races for a total of 24 laps. He didn't have a top-5 finish and had only two top-10s.
It didn't look like that would change this weekend. Stewart was near the bottom of the practice charts on Friday and qualified 22nd. One hundred and forty laps in, he was 20th and 200 laps in he was 15th.
It appeared the most asked question in the garage would remain the same: "What's wrong with Stewart-Haas Racing?"
Now we know. Nothing that a few timely cautions and a penalty on the best car can't cure.
Actually, it goes much deeper than that. The team was in such dire straits after Saturday's final practice that Stewart admittedly was prepared for a "very long day." The organization was in such an unusual position of not knowing exactly what was missing that competition director Greg Zipadelli was ready to abort everything and come up with a new package.
"This means more to me, going from where we were Friday to where we are today, than having a weekend where we show up and are the quickest in practice, sit on the pole and everything goes right all weekend," Stewart said. "This was no layup. This was not a little bit of a tweak here, a little bit of a tweak there."
The win was a reward for a group that had been beaten down by mediocrity, that didn't give up despite speculation that Danica Patrick was pulling down the organization and a report that Stewart might be considering a change with crew chief Steve Addington.
The report, by the way, didn't make Stewart happy.
"I'll be honest, it pissed me off because it was a big distraction to my organization because it kept us from doing our jobs," he said. "I don't need that c---."
What Stewart needed was for something good to happen, a signal the organization was starting to turn things around. He got a hint of that with a seventh-place finish last week at Charlotte.
The win spoke volumes.
"It's definitely momentum," Stewart said. "Momentum is huge in this sport. We've still got a lot of work to do. We won't sit … I guarantee you none of these guys will tell you we are exactly where we want to be right now.
"It's a good reward for how hard they have been working to get that first win of the year. Now it's trying to be more consistent and stay in the top 10 more and make our program better."
As disappointed as Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick was that Johnson didn't win, he was proud of Stewart because he understands what he's been through.
"He's carrying the load that I carry sometimes when your cars aren't running too well and you're trying to rally the troops and drive the car," said Hendrick, who supplies engines and chassis to SHR. "Pretty hard to do. Tony has done a good job of just hanging tough, staying with his guys.
"This will get him back in shape. This is what they needed, the whole team, to get their year started."
Whether this turns Stewart's season around remains to be seen, but a few things are apparent:
• Johnson remains the driver to beat, showing the strength of his team when he went from a lap down to a dominant force.
• Toyota Racing Development must stabilize its engine program if one of its drivers is to contend in the Chase. Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr., contenders for the win, lost engines on Sunday. Kyle Busch lost one a week ago while contending.
• The race for the wild card might be better than the race for the championship, with 11th place through 20th separated by only 38 points and a lot of top names in the mix. Stewart is right in the middle at 16th. He has an edge now as the only driver outside the top 10 and in the top 20 with a victory.
He's also coming up on what traditionally has been the best part of his season when the weather gets hot and the tracks get slick.
But Stewart didn't become one of the top drivers or owners by taking things for granted. He understands the organization hasn't arrived because of one win.
"Our goal is to be championship contenders," Stewart said. "So I would rather miss the Chase and the effort to be in the process of building our program to where we have an opportunity to not just be in the Chase, but have an opportunity to win the Chase.
"Just making the Chase, that's not good enough."
It's like being lost in the crowd in a driver's meeting.
Let's not underplay the importance of Sunday's victory at Dover for Tony Stewart. The three-time Sprint Cup champion was in a veritable free fall. Now he's a Chase contender.