Denny Hamlin climbs from his car in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race in Avondale, Ariz., Sunday, March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/LAT, Lesley Ann Miller)
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Timing the restart perfectly, Tony Stewart dove to the edge of the apron and ducked under the two cars in front of him.
With one bold move, the defending Sprint Cup champion was on his way to a redemptive win.
Stewart made a three-wide pass on a late restart and held off Jimmie Johnson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, winning at a track that was the site of his biggest disappointment last season.
"We had to wait 365 days for a shot at it again," Stewart said. "I might not have been so mad on the airplane had I known I was going to win a year later."
Stewart came back to Las Vegas with a new crew chief and the hope of having a little better luck than he had a year ago, when a pit mishap spoiled a chance at victory with what he believed to be the best car in the field.
With Steve Addington calling the shots from the pit box, Stewart again had a good car in his return trip to the desert, uncatchable on the restarts and good enough to hold off Johnson, Greg Biffle and anyone else who tried to track him down.
"It's been a long time since I've seen a car that fast," said Biffle, who finished third. "On the restarts, I've just never seen a car driving off like that."
Stewart got the lead with a did-he-just-do-that move with 34 laps to go in the 400-mile race.
Coming around turn 4 to the start/finish line, Stewart charged up behind Brad Keselowski and timed it just right to dip below him on the apron. He zipped to the front and stayed there, pulling away on three more less-thrilling restarts over the final 17 laps.
It was his sixth win in the past 13 Sprint Cup races and first on the 1.5-mile tri-oval not far from the bright lights of the The Strip.
"We almost got too good a restart because I got such a good run on Brad, I almost got there too quick," Stewart said. "If we'd have got there a foot earlier, we'd have had to check up and probably wouldn't get a run and get underneath him like that."
A year ago, Stewart appeared to be cruising to Victory Lane at Las Vegas, only to be tripped up in the pits.
He was penalized for leaving his pit stall with an air hose still attached and the team opted to take two tires on a later stop to get him back to the front.
Stewart did get to the front, but the rest of the teams saw that taking two tires would work and switched tactics. Forced to take four tires late in the race, he dropped to 22nd and ran out of time to catch Carl Edwards, finishing second.
Stewart went on to win his third Sprint Cup championship, thanks to the five times he was able to get to Victory Lane. He fired crew chief Darian Grubb after the season and lured Addington from Penske Racing to replace him.
Stewart was 16th at the Daytona 500 and had a good finish ruined last week at Phoenix after he turned off his car to save on fuel and couldn't get it to re-fire, a problem believed to be linked to NASCAR's new electronic fuel injection system. He was well back in the pack after a lengthy pit stop and finished 22nd.
Stewart qualified seventh at Las Vegas and took his first lead on lap 135, beating Johnson on a restart. He lost the lead briefly on a cycle of green-flag pit stops and quickly regained it.
He turned back a challenge by Keselowski and pulled away from Johnson on a final restart with four laps left to finally take the checkers, leaving Darlington and Kentucky as the only active tracks he hasn't won at.
"I really believe Tony is really coming into his own with Stewart-Haas Racing," co-owner Gene Haas said. "He's as calm as I've ever seen him, composed, very confident in what he does. I have no doubt this could be another pivotal year for Tony."
Johnson had to break out a backup car after a crash in practice on Saturday, sending him to the back of the field. He didn't take long to get to the front, though, challenging Matt Kenseth for the lead by lap 83.
Johnson, who has never won in a backup car, overtook Kenseth 16 laps later and stayed there until Stewart beat him on a restart on lap 134. The five-time Sprint Cup champion stayed within range and was third coming out of a caution with 17 laps, then quickly passed Biffle for second.
Two more cautions caused by the Busch brothers followed, but Johnson couldn't keep up with Stewart on the restarts.
"I drove my guts out, but just didn't get it done," Johnson said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated the early part of the race, leading 70 of the first 73 laps 18 more than he had in all of 2011. He dropped back after taking four tires while nearly else took two during a caution on lap 74 and struggled with his car in traffic after that, finishing 10th to extend his winless streak to 132 races.