NATIONWIDE Aaron's 312

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Stewart wins Aaron's 312

Apr 27, 2008 - 3:26 AM TALLADEGA, Alabama (Ticker) -- Through all the controversy and the multiple wrecks, Tony Stewart never lost his focus.

Stewart won his third career NASCAR Nationwide Series race, taking the checkered flag at the Aaron's 312 on Saturday with an average speed of 133.096 miles per hour.

For his effort, Stewart collected $59,320 after leading the race on five different occasions.

In a Toyota Camry, Stewart led 81 of the 117 laps and held off a challenge from Dale Earnhardt Jr. and several others for his first win on the Nationwide circuit since capturing the Hershey's Kissables 300 in 2006.

"I don't care if it's a bicycle race, I finally won a race at Talladega," a beaming Stewart said. "I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight, I'm so excited. This is not like winning just any Nationwide race. To me, this is the biggest one I've had, to finally win at Talladega."

After the race was green-flagged with two laps to go following the eighth caution of the day, Stewart led all the way to the finish line, getting a challenge from Earnhardt in turns 2 and 3 of the last lap before "Junior" fell off and finished sixth.

"Having Junior behind me for three-quarters of the race, that's like having an insurance policy. I knew I was in good hands there," Stewart said. "But at the same time, while you know you're going to have help for most of the race, when you get to the last 10 laps, that insurance policy turns bad real quick."

On the last lap, Earnhardt got alongside Stewart on the backstretch and made a strong run for the lead, but he could not complete the pass. After being poised to snatch away the front spot from Stewart, Earnhardt lost the draft.

"Our team had such a good car that we carried enough momentum down the backstretch. Even though Earnhardt went by us momentarily, we were able to stay with him and get the side draft," Stewart said. "I got the push from (David) Stremme and got back in front, and it was like the weight of the world was off our shoulders that we had a shot to finally win it."

The 36-year-old Stewart, who won his first pole in 23 NASCAR races at Talladega on Friday, also had spent the prior two days defending his decision to announce that he is looking for a new team other than Joe Gibbs Racing, for which he's been a driver for all of his 10 seasons.

Stewart also had to overcome several serious wrecks - one that wiped out rookie Dario Franchitti on the 10th lap and a huge 16-car pile-up with 47 laps to go that halted racing altogether.

That crash was caused when veteran Kevin Lepage was coming back onto the track after a pit stop and did not build up enough speed going into turn 1, forcing Carl Edwards to practically run him over while other racers began spinning out. The multi-car wreck, which red-flagged the race, was a big reason why only 29 of the 43 drivers finished the race.

The Chevrolet Monte Carlo of Stremme finished second, while Bobby Hamilton Jr. was third in a Ford Fusion. Jason Leffler's Toyota came in fourth.

Franchitti was injured in the early stages of this race, when his Dodge appeared to lose its right rear tire before slamming into the wall and spinning down the track. He then was smacked into by the Ford of Larry Gunselman, who rammed into the driver's side door of Franchitti's vehicle.

Conscious and alert, Franchitti was taken to an ambulance on a stretcher and transported to a local hospital for further evaluation, where X-rays confirmed a broken ankle. A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, the 34-year-old Franchitti had matched his career best by qualifying fourth for this race.

Chip Ganassi Racing did not immediately announce a replacement driver for Franchitti, but Stremme said following the race that the team had approached him about filling in. Stremme drove that car for two seasons before being replaced by Franchitti this year.

The worst crash of the day on lap 70 had several drivers pointing their fingers at Lepage, who seemed not to know the rules of blending back into competition after leaving the pits.

"I saw a car coming off of pit road and going about 100 miles an hour slower," said Kelly Bires, one of the eight drivers whose car was totally destroyed in the wreck. "It's just a bummer. There were a lot of good race cars that got torn up right there because of that deal."

The driver most upset was Edwards, who said he was lucky not to be seriously injured.

"Before I say some kind of stupid statement, I want to see a replay," Edwards said. "But in my mind, unless it shows otherwise, it just looked like the 61 - I think it was Kevin Lepage - just pulled up right in front of the field.

"I'm just glad I didn't get hurt there, glad I didn't get a piece of roll bar or something like that stuck through my floorboard."

Lepage defended his actions.

"Everyone is mad at me, but in pre-track meetings, we were told to stay below the blend line coming out of the pits until you get to turn one," he said. "Then you can get two tires over the line."

However, a NASCAR spokesman said all drivers were instructed before the event to stay completely under the yellow line until turn two.

Edwards was angry not only at Lepage, but also at the way restrictor plate racing leaves many of the cars bunched up throughout the course of competition.

"I'm really frustrated," Edwards said. "Restrictor plate racing is great for the fans, but it can get someone killed because all of the cars are grouped together."

Clint Bowyer, the current series points leader, finished 25th in a Chevy, 24 laps behind the leaders. Kyle Busch, who is third in points and had won three consecutive Nationwide races, finished 16th.

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