An untimely caution put Tony Stewart and several other drivers a lap down early in the AAA 400 on Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, and three-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Stewart was unable to return to the lead lap, eventually finishing 20th in the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
Stewart began picking off cars after starting 24th, as the handling of his Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet settled in. Crew chief Steve Addington called Stewart to pit road for four tires, a wedge adjustment and fuel on lap 66 during the first round of green-flag pit stops. But when the yellow caution flag waved two laps later for J.J. Yeley’s hit with the outside retaining wall, Stewart, along with several other drivers, was caught two laps down to the eight cars that had yet to pit. The team elected to take the wave-around, placing Stewart in the one-lap down category in 22nd place.
Despite being a lap down, Stewart made steady progress through the field during the next run, climbing to 15th when green-flag pit stops started on lap 140. Stewart stopped on lap 147 for four tires and fuel and was 17th when stops cycled through. But he was caught two laps down again when the second caution was displayed for debris on lap 179. It was a theme that recurred during the entire 400-lap race around the 1-mile concrete oval.
Even though untimely cautions and poor track position persisted, the No. 14 team continued to massage the handling on the Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet with effective minor adjustments. The 20th-place finish was not indicative of the team’s effort or the speed of the car.
“We just got caught behind the eight-ball there,” Stewart said. “We got a lap down and the next run we pitted, and we came back out and the No. 36 car (Yeley) crashes. It was just a domino effect. Every time you’d try to get a lap back, it would run all the way to the end. And as soon as we’d pit, the caution would come out again.
“So I don’t know what we’ve got to do to change our luck, but that’s just the story of the day for us. It was the best car I’ve had here for a long time.”
Enduring the same fate as Stewart was his SHR teammate, Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet, who fell victim to untimely cautions throughout the race. He finished right behind Stewart in 21st place.
SHR driver Danica Patrick, who is driving the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing via a collaborative agreement with SHR, finished 28th in her continuing Sprint Cup education. Dover marked Patrick’s seventh career Sprint Cup start and her first at Dover.
Brad Keselowski won the AAA 400 to score his ninth career Sprint Cup victory, his fifth of the season and his first at Dover.
Jeff Gordon finished 1.078 seconds behind Keselowski in the runner-up spot, while Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards rounded out the top-five. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were five caution periods for 28 laps, with seven drivers failing to finish. Only six cars were on the lead lap at the end of the event, while only 11 cars completed 398 or more laps.
Stewart is representing SHR in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, and came into the third race of the 10-race Chase in fourth place among the 12 Chase drivers, 10 points behind Chase leader Johnson. Stewart leaves Dover fifth in the standings, 32 points behind new Chase leader Keselowski.
Newman fell one spot to 15th in the standings with 830 points, 40 back of 13th-place Busch.