Stewart Finishes Uncharacteristic 30th in Atlanta 500 Perhaps it was appropriate that Sunday's Atlanta 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway preceded Halloween. For in a race that Tony Stewart described as an episode of...
Stewart Finishes Uncharacteristic 30th in Atlanta 500
Perhaps it was appropriate that Sunday's Atlanta 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway preceded Halloween. For in a race that Tony Stewart described as an episode of The Twilight Zone, the two-time Atlanta race winner drove an evil-handling race car to a rather ugly 30th-place finish.
Stewart's run around the 1.54-mile Atlanta oval didn't start out as badly as it ended. In fact, it appeared the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing would be contending for his second straight win in the series' fall visit to Atlanta, as Stewart scored a dominant win last October when he led seven times for a race-high 146 laps.
Stewart rallied from his 30th-place starting spot to crack the top-10 just 38 laps into the 329-lap contest, which was extended four laps past its scheduled 325-lap distance by a green/white/checkered finish.
By posting some of the fastest laps on the race track, Stewart crept to as high as sixth with a pass of Jeff Gordon just before the caution flag waved on lap 58.
But slowly, Stewart's race began to unravel. The planted feeling his Home Depot Chevrolet had through the track's corners steadily faded. The car began to feel increasingly loose off the corners, and with each passing lap Stewart was unable to get on the gas as quickly as he had the lap before, for fear that the rear end of his race car would step out and slap the outside wall.
Down the leaderboard Stewart went, dropping out of the top-10 on lap 80 and down to 28th on lap 130.
There, Stewart keyed his radio to say the obvious: "We've got a problem."
In an unscheduled green-flag pit stop that put Stewart two laps down, the crew changed four tires, took a spring rubber out of the right-rear corner, lowered the track bar and adjusted the air pressure in the left-side tires.
After Stewart returned to the track in 36th, he found that the handling on his No. 20 machine could be tightened up even more.
Additional chassis changes were made by crew chief Greg Zipadelli on a follow-up stop under caution on lap 151, but after about 10 laps of green-flag racing, the loose-handling condition returned.
"Every lap feels like a qualifying lap," said Stewart, alluding to the typically loose setup used in qualifying to gain the most speed for just two timed laps.
More changes were made on subsequent stops whenever the caution flag would fly, but it was to little avail.
The team's day officially turned sour and entered The Twilight Zone when, on lap 194, Stewart radioed that his car had lost oil pressure.
With his oil pressure gauge reading zero, Stewart brought the car to pit road with the engine off, so as to not grenade the engine and leave a trail of oil on the race track. But as it turned out, the engine wasn't the problem. It was a faulty gauge.
The time spent on pit road dropped Stewart four more laps off the pace to a total of six. On a lap all his own in 34th, Stewart rode out the last 200 miles until the checkered flag mercifully dropped.
But with three caution periods during the last 10 laps, all of which were for accidents, Stewart actually gained four positions to place 30th. After going around in circles at 190-plus mph for a little over 500 miles, Stewart finished exactly where he started.
The result was atypical for Stewart and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team, as 11 times in the previous 12 Atlanta races they've finished in the top-10 to log an average finish of sixth.