The victory Tony Stewart and everyone else who has watched his rookie season knew was inevitable still left the driver tongue-tied.
"I wish I knew what to say," NASCAR's newly validated superstar said after winning the Exide 400 tonight. "You plan all your life for this. This is the first time I'm speechless."
Hampered early by slower pit stops than the rest of the leaders, Stewart made up for it with a dominant car that took the suspense out of the outcome on a track where side by side racing is the norm and the finishes are usually thrillers.
His crew also rose to the occasion at the end, putting together a blistering stop with 95 laps to go that allowed him--finally--to leave the pits with the lead he brought in under one of the six cautions that slowed the race. And they did it even as Jeff Gordon's vaunted Rainbow Warriors had a 16-second stop.
Stewart became only the sixth Winston Cup rookie to win in his first year and only the second driver to gain his first career victory on the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway oval. Kyle Petty was the first, 13 years ago.
"I love this Virginia race track, that's for sure," Stewart said in Victory Lane. "We never changed a screw all night. All we did was adjust air pressure."
Stewart's Joe Gibbs Pontiac teammate, Bobby Labonte, took advantage of lapped traffic to close in on Stewart with about 20 laps to go, but the 1997 Indy Racing League champion used the slower cars to his advantage to keep Labonte at bay.
"I was concerned about the lapped cars at the end, but I appreciate all the guys' professionalism," Stewart said. "They really let Bobby and me race."
Labonte finished second, 1.114 seconds behind, giving Pontiac its first one-two finish since Rusty Wallace and Kyle Petty did it in 1993 at North Wilkesboro, N.C.
Stewart did several donuts after clinching the victory, then drove the wrong way around the track in the first victory lap of his NASCAR career.
"This is one of the great nights. I'm so proud of Tony," Gibbs said in Victory Lane. "I couldn't be happier. It was one of the big thrills of my life."
Stewart led 333 laps, including the last 144. He averaged 104.006 mph.