JOHN KEKIS AP Sports Writer WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.
Seneca Lodge sits nestled in the hills overlooking this Finger Lakes village, and it's sort of a shrine to open-wheel racing. Its walls are covered with photos of all the open-wheel winners in Watkins Glen International's storied history, from Jim Clark to Graham Hill to Jackie Stewart. They might want to make some room for a former open-wheel guy who now races in NASCAR because Tony Stewart is king of them all. Stewart won the rain-delayed NASCAR Sprint Cup race in the steamy air at Watkins Glen on Monday, muscling an ill-handling car in the early going and then holding off Australian Marcos Ambrose over the final 21 laps for his Cup-record fifth victory at the famed road course. "There's just something about this place," Stewart said after his 36th career win. "We've been really good, but we weren't good enough in the first run to be fast enough to beat these guys." Stewart always seems to peak in the hot days of summer, and with the Chase for the Cup title looming in four races, he's right on schedule. Stewart has finished fifth or better in eight of his last 10 starts all top 10s and leads Jimmie Johnson in the standings by 260 points. All he has to do on Sunday at Michigan is start the race to secure his spot in the 12-man Chase. "We'll keep working hard. That's what we have to do," said Stewart, who led 34 laps but was mired in 13th for the early part of the race. "We'll be focused on what we've got to do next week. We've got to do what got us to the dance." Although Stewart has finished first or second in eight of the past 11 Cup road races, he had to keep the hard-charging Ambrose at bay. Ambrose won the Nationwide race here Saturday with a daring move that surprised Kyle Busch for the lead, and he finished third a year ago in the Cup race after starting last. "I was watching him (Ambrose)," Stewart said. "I think we were stronger in the parts we needed to be and we never looked at the fuel." It was Stewart's third win in his first season as an owner-driver and the seventh road course win of his career, second to four-time Watkins Glen winner Jeff Gordon's NASCAR-record nine. Stewart has six consecutive top-two finishes at Watkins Glen, also winning in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2007 and finishing second in 2006 and 2008. All of Stewart's previous success at The Glen came with crew chief Greg Zipadelli at Joe Gibbs Racing. Grubb was atop the pit box this time for Stewart- Haas Racing. The race originally was scheduled for Sunday, but a string of thunderstorms forced it to Monday. Last week's race at Pocono also was postponed until Monday because of rain. Ambrose was second, a career best, and Carl Edwards third. Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Max Papis, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 10. Polesitter Jimmie Johnson, seeking his first career road win, finished 12th. Kyle Busch, 13th in points, closed the gap on 12th-place Matt Kenseth for the cutoff spot in the 10-race Chase. Busch, who entered the race 102 points behind Kenseth, narrowed the margin to 58. Stewart moved ahead of Busch on a restart on lap 67. Busch chose the outside line as the leader and Stewart took advantage, getting past him on the first turn and holding him off up through the high-speed esses. "It's a hard decision when you're leading to decide exactly where you need to be," Stewart said. "We passed him on both sides." Stewart needed every lap of caution he could get to make it to the end of the 220.5 mile race, and the fifth caution helped. The final yellow flag came out on lap 71 for debris, setting up another double-file restart, this time with Ambrose alongside. Ambrose dived low inside to start lap 74, but Stewart blocked him and maintained the lead, with Kyle Busch and Edwards, who started 33rd, in close pursuit. "Unfortunately, the track was hotter and slicker than what we wanted," said Ambrose, who was fastest in both practices on Saturday. "We just didn't quite have the grip." Ambrose, running on older tires, never mounted a challenge as Stewart maintained a lead of more than a second over the final 10 laps. "I threw everything I could at him," said Ambrose. "We couldn't quite close the deal."