Stewart left scratching his head
Tony Stewart led 97 of 200 laps in Sunday's Batman Begins 400 and was clearly the class of the field for most of the day. In the end, he lost on a strategy decision and learned once again that no matter how many laps you lead in NASCAR there's only one that pays the most money.
"I guess we need to figure out how to lead the right lap," Stewart said, of course referring to the last lap. "It's frustrating for us as a team. We had a really good car all day."
At the end of the day, on the last pit stop, Stewart and Co. decided they would come in to get four fresh tires. As the cars creep toward pit road, there's always a lot of guessing going on wondering if the leaders and those behind are going to pit. Stewart said he didn't care who was coming in. He had made up his mind from the start.
"All I knew is that we weren't fast enough to beat Biffle the way we were at. I felt like if we took tires we had enough laps to get back," said Stewart, acknowledging that this was the same strategy that Carl Edwards used to win the Busch race in Kentucky the night before. "We should have been able to get up to the front."
Should have. And it worked against most cars with old tires as Stewart shot from eighth to second. But Biffle was too strong and too fast to catch. Despite having tires that were 12 laps older than Stewart's, the Roush Racing driver never looked back and nabbed his fifth checkered flag of the year.
"It just amazes me that four tires can't beat a car that's got 12 laps on it," Stewart said.
Afterward, Stewart was puzzled. How, once more, could he have had such a dominant car and still not break through for a win? How were the Roush Racing drivers able to get the better of him -- just as the Hendrick Motorsports drivers had done earlier in the year when he was so dominant?
At Talladega Superspeedway, Stewart was the strongest race car on the track. He was also the second-place finisher -- losing out to Jeff Gordon. At Richmond International Speedway, he was again dominant. But in the end, he was the man who finished second the night perennial runner-up Kasey Kahne finally broke through for a win.
The 2002 Cup champion has watched as the Roush and Hendrick conglomerates have stolen most of the victories in this young season and he's wondered quietly when his turn would come. On Sunday, after getting shut out despite another strong car, he wasn't so silent with his questions.
"It's like, what do we have to do to get in Victory Lane this season?" Stewart wondered. " It's like Zippy [crew chief Greg Zipadelli], 'We got to crawl before we walk, walk before we jog and jog before we run.' So, you know, I'm sure in 10 minutes I'll feel a lot better about it. It's just that when you run that good all day and lead that many laps, [it's frustrating] that you can't finish it off."
Stewart wasn't angry afterward. He was appreciative of what he called another 100-percent effort from his team. And he was appreciative for another good points day -- one in which he jumped four spots up to sixth.
"You know, at least we're here," he said. "It was pretty good today. You know, it's like, what are we missing now? We made a huge step and we're still not where we need to be. It's like, what do we need to do to catch those guys.
"The only thing I know is that [the team's] giving 100 percent. Whether that's good enough each week to get the job done, we have to take that one week at a time to find out."
This week, it was good enough to keep Stewart among the top 10 -- a feat that has eluded stars like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But it wasn't good enough for a victory, and that's going to sting for a couple of days.
"Until we get back to the track and try again," Zipadelli said.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.