MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go Sunday at Martinsville Speedway and surged into contention for his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with three races remaining.
Then, Stewart playfully called out points leader Carl Edwards in a duel to the finish.
"He better be worried. That's all I've got to say," Stewart said of Edwards in Victory Lane, a broad smile spreading across his face. "He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks."
Edwards, a Columbia native, laughed when told of Stewart's challenge.
"He's wound up. He won the race. We'll see what happens at Texas," Edwards said. "I told you guys I thought he was one of the guys that could win this race and be a guy that you'd have to beat for the championship and I think he's proving that right now. But yeah, we'll have fun.
"We'll go race hard. They're gonna have to race us, too. I'm excited about the next three races."
Edwards struggled all day, twice needing the get a free pass as the first car a lap down. He made it pay off the second time, adjusting his car and rallying to finish an unlikely ninth.
"That's just a gift," he said. "We did not deserve to finish ninth."
Given his history at Martinsville, where he has struggled, Edwards felt like he'd won.
"I had become OK with the fact that we were probably going to finish 20th or 25th," he said. "I was thinking already about Texas and how we were going to have to go there and everything we were going to do, but my guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate."
The victory was the third for Stewart in the first seven races of the 10-race playoffs, and he was easily the leading benefactor as the points race was significantly jumbled.
Stewart moved from fourth place, 19 points behind Edwards, to second place just eight points behind, while several contenders got caught up in a season-high 18 caution flags.
Even Stewart, who last won the championship in 2005, had trouble, at one point having to apologize to race leader Denny Hamlin for racing him hard to stay on the lead lap. And that was with less than 20 laps to go.
"I was pretty mad all day, but I was the only guy who didn't get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that," Stewart said, adding that his team told him not to be nice.
The winning pass, he said, surprised even him.
"I don't think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside," he said, crediting crew chief Darian Grubb for making the right calls and adjustments all race long. "I don't think we had the best race car today, by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew."
Johnson, for much of the day, looked like he might be the one making a huge gain in the points race, especially as Edwards floundered in the mid-20s and wasn't getting any better.
The cautions, which slowed things for 108 laps, also a season high, allowed Johnson to weather a call by crew chief Chad Knaus to stay out when all the leaders behind him pitted for fresh tires with just over 40 laps to go. But he couldn't hold on with Stewart pressing him at the end.
"I just could not get away from him on the restart," he said, adding that he tried to be cognizant of Stewart's better position in the championship battle. "I thought about going in there and leaning on him, move him up, but that is just not the right thing to do."
Others deserved much better than what they got, namely Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski. They started the day second and third in points, and both were running near the front all day until getting caught up in late accidents. Kenseth finished 31st and Keselowski wound up 17th.
1. Carl Edwards, 2,273
2. Tony Stewart, 2,265
3. Kevin Harvick, 2,252
4. Brad Keselowski, 2,246
5. Matt Kenseth, 2,237
6. Jimmie Johnson, 2,230
7. Kyle Busch, 2,216
8. Kurt Busch, 2,215
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2,200
10. Jeff Gordon, 2,197
11. Denny Hamlin, 2,193
12. Ryan Newman, 2,184
It seemed especially harsh for Kenseth, who was doing uncharacteristically well for himself on the 0.526-mile oval until tangling with Kyle Busch on lap 464. Kenseth wound up in the garage.
"That ruined my day, along with his and whoever else got unfortunately collected in that mess," Kenseth said about Busch, who also ran up front all day but limped home in 27th place.
Kenseth was running eighth when he crashed. Keselowski also was running eighth.
Jeff Gordon finished third and saw plenty of mayhem all race long.
"That was crazy. The racing was crazy," he said.
Kevin Harvick finished fourth and moved into third in the points race, 21 behind Edwards. Hamlin was fourth, followed by Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.
Johnson, who started the day seventh in points, moved into sixth with his second-place run but is still 43 points off the lead in search of his sixth consecutive championship.