WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - When the rain held off and The Glen heated up, "Smoke" was in his element.
Tony Stewart won the rain-delayed NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International on a steamy 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.
'I love it when it gets slick,' Stewart said after his 36th Cup win. 'There's just something about this place. We've been really good.'
Stewart has finished first or second in eight of the past 11 Cup road races, but 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 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. Darian Grubb was atop the pit box this time for Stewart-Haas Racing.
The two-time Cup champion always seems to peak in the hot days of summer, and 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 for the Cup title.
'We'll keep working hard,' said Stewart, who led 34 laps. 'We'll be focused on what we've got to do next week. We've got to do what got us to the dance.'
Added Grubb: 'We've still got work to do. We're trying to get stronger every week, and this was a testament to the effort. We know how good Tony is here, and we're going to get stronger. Hopefully, we can carry that momentum into the Chase.'
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 to 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.
'This was a good finish for us,' said Kenseth, who was 14th. 'We just need to make our team stronger.'
The chaos that everybody was expecting on the double-file restarts never materialized. There were no major incidents in the hard, downhill, 90-degree right-hand first turn.
Ambrose started fourth and ran up front early. But pit strategy dropped him deep in the field midway through the 90-lap race. He stayed out when the rest of the leaders pitted for the first time and was running 22nd on lap 50 after making his first stop.
'It was the first stop,' Ambrose said. 'We were third and stayed out and everybody pitted. We could have pitted. We were off sequence and had to run our own race.'
Ambrose ducked into the pits on lap 55 for fuel only and made up 10 seconds on leader Kyle Busch. A multicar crash involving Gordon and Sam Hornish Jr. on lap 63 brought out a 19-minute red flag stoppage and put Ambrose back in the mix.
Kasey Kahne precipitated the crash when he dived inside of Hornish coming out of turn nine on the 11-curve track and sent Hornish into the grass on the left side. Hornish's No. 77 Dodge caromed off a tire barrier and back onto the track, and Gordon's No. 24 slammed head-on into it, spinning violently around into the Armco barrier lining the track.
Both Gordon and Hornish climbed from their cars uninjured. Also involved were Andy Lally, Jeff Burton and Joey Logano.
Stewart cleared leader Kyle Busch on the 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.
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.
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, who won the Nationwide race here Saturday with a daring move on Kyle Busch. 'We got stuck in the back of the pack and had to make a gamble. The extra laps we had on the tires hurt. I closed in on him, could see him make a few mistakes, but we couldn't quite close the deal.'