MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go Sunday and surged into contention for his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with three races remaining.
Then, Stewart playfully called out points leader Carl Edwards.
"He better be worried. That's all I've got to say," Stewart said of Edwards in Victory Lane, a smile spreading across his face. "He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks."
The victory was the third for Stewart in the first seven races of the 10-race playoff, and he was easily the leading benefactor as the points race became significantly jumbled.
Stewart moved from 19 points behind leader Edwards and in fourth place to eight points behind in second as several contenders got caught up in a season-high 18 caution flags.
Even Stewart 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 (Sunday), by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew."
For much of the day, Johnson looked like he might be the one making a huge gain in the points race, especially as Edwards floundered in the mid 20s.
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 more than 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," Johnson 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."
Johnson, who started the day seventh in points, moved into sixth but is 43 points off the lead in search of his sixth consecutive championship. Stewart last won the title in 2005.
Edwards laughed when told of Stewart's challenge. "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," Edwards said, "and I think he's proving that right now. But yeah, we'll have fun."
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."
Others deserved much better than what they got, namely Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski. They started the day second and third in points, respectively, and were running near the front all day until getting caught up in late accidents. Kenseth finished 31st and Keselowski 17th.
"He better be worried. That's all I've got to say. He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks."
Tony Stewart, joking about points leader Carl Edwards after Stewart jumped to No. 2 in the standings with his win