Atlanta: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart's Strong Run Secured with a Strong Finish Home Depot Driver Leads 50 Laps Before Finishing Fifth at Atlanta Coming into Monday's rain-delayed Golden Corral 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart had led...

Stewart's Strong Run Secured with a Strong Finish Home Depot Driver Leads 50 Laps Before Finishing Fifth at Atlanta

Coming into Monday's rain-delayed Golden Corral 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart had led in each of the three races run this season for a total of 102 laps. But all the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing had to show for his efforts was a lone top-five finish in the season-opening race at Daytona (Fla.). His 28 laps led at California meant nothing when his engine expired and left him last in the 43-car field. And the 54 laps he led last week at Las Vegas became moot when a flat tire late in the race dropped him to 21st.

So after the Atlanta race where Stewart led four times for 50 laps and rallied an ill-handling Home Depot Chevrolet to finish fifth, the two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion was pleased to finally cap a solid race run with an equally solid finish.

"It's been a while since we had a top-five in Atlanta," said Stewart, whose last top-five at the 1.54-mile oval came in March 2003. "I'm just happy, especially since Home Depot is based down here in Atlanta.

"We just fought all day. We didn't have a very good car at the beginning. Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief) and the guys just kept working on it and we got a top-five out of it. So it was definitely a pleasing day."

Stewart started the 325-lap race in 21st due in large part to the #20 team's inability to get a handle on the chassis during Friday's pre-qualifying practice session. Stewart's qualifying lap reflected the team's struggles, but Saturday's two practice sessions allowed Stewart and Zipadelli to develop a handling package that would complement The Home Depot Chevrolet come Sunday.

But the only thing that came on Sunday was rain. NASCAR was forced to postpone the race until Monday, and it was there where Saturday's tinkering came to fruition.

With the help of quick pit stops that included minute chassis adjustments, Stewart rose to 10th by lap 50. As his Home Depot Chevrolet drove better and better, Stewart's pit crew worked quicker and quicker.

It was the pit crew who gave Stewart his first turn out front, as their work while under caution on lap 119 vaulted him from fifth to first when the race restarted on lap 125.

Stewart held off a charge from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin to pace the field for 38 of the next 40 laps.

But as the race wore on, Stewart's #20 machine became tight, and his time out front became brief.

"We just kept working on the balance (of the car) all day," said Stewart, who had drifted back to ninth by lap 248. "I don't think we ever got it happy, but we got it good enough to get us in the top-five. With (Matt) Kenseth having a problem and Robby (Gordon) having a problem, it got us into the top-five. But we had a top 10-car for sure. We just got some breaks that went our way at the end."

Kenseth had a flat tire late race in the race while Gordon needed a splash of gas to make it to the end. Both drivers had been running in the top-five, but Kenseth wound up 13th and Gordon finished 28th. Their misfortune combined with Stewart's tenacious drive allowed The Home Depot pilot to nab his fifth career top-five finish at Atlanta.

The strong showing vaulted Stewart from 19th to 12th in the championship point standings. He now sits 226 markers arrears series leader Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates - J.J. Yeley and Hamlin - finished 15th and 31st, respectively. Yeley is 18th in points while Hamlin sits 20th.

Kasey Kahne scored his second career Nextel Cup victory by winning the Golden Corral 500. Mark Martin finished second, while Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Stewart secured the rest of the top-five. Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and rookie Reed Sorenson comprised the rest of the top-10.

The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the March 26 Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The race begins at 2:10 p.m. EST with live coverage provided by FOX.

-jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Tony Stewart , Kyle Petty , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Paul Menard , Denny Hamlin , Reed Sorenson , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing