FIGURE EIGHTS Stewart Nabs Third Eighth-Place Finish in Fourth Sprint Cup Race of 2009 In the four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races run thus far in 2009, Tony Stewart has finished eighth in three of them. The driver of the No. 14 Office...
Stewart Nabs Third Eighth-Place Finish in Fourth Sprint Cup Race of 2009
In the four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races run thus far in 2009, Tony Stewart has finished eighth in three of them. The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) nabbed his most recent eighth-place result in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.
Getting that result, however, was far from easy. Stewart came from two laps down in the 330-lap contest -- extended five laps past its scheduled distance due to a green-white-checkered finish -- and clawed his way to his 13th top-10 finish in 21 career Sprint Cup starts at Atlanta.
"There are a lot of guys that had problems today and never recovered from it," said Stewart, who climbed two spots to sixth in the championship standings, 113 points behind series leader Jeff Gordon. "We got two laps down and fought our way back. At this place, that is hard to do. There are not very many guys that can come back from two laps down like that, so I am really proud of the team."
Stewart came home eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and in the Feb. 22 Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. But the eighth-place finish scored Sunday at Atlanta was, by far, the one he had to work the hardest for.
All 43 drivers in Sunday's race dealt with fitful racecars that slipped and skidded around the 1.54-mile oval. Stewart's No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy was no different, beginning the race so tight that the nose pushed through the track's corners and ending the race so loose that the rear end would seemingly step out at will.
Stewart wheeled it throughout all 508.2 miles, and did it under the gun as an untimely caution and his ill-handling racecar conspired to put him two laps down after only 100 laps.
The first lap was lost when shortly after making a scheduled, green flag pit stop on lap 63, the yellow caution flag waved four laps later when a crew member from another team inexplicably walked across pit road and into the infield grass to retrieve an errant tire as cars raced along the frontstretch at 200 mph. The necessary caution immediately put Stewart a lap down, for those who hadn't yet pitted were able to do so during the relative calm of the yellow flag period.
When the race restarted on lap 74, Stewart was in the 18th position and at the tail end of the lead lap. With a racecar too free on entry and exit in the track's corners, Stewart soon lost another lap as the race stayed green until lap 104.
Stewart persevered in the car while crew chief Darian Grubb sat atop the pit box and plotted ways to make the Office Depot/Old Spice machine better. Both succeeded.
With a car that saw its handling improve as Grubb kept tweaking its chassis during regularly scheduled pit stops, Stewart's lap times improved in kind. And during a lap-189 pit stop that seemed catastrophic at the time when only three gallons of gas was added to the fuel cell instead of the requisite 11 gallons, the miscue ended up being a blessing.
With a car that been too loose, the lack of weight from not having a full tank of gas helped Stewart track better through the corners and increase his overall speed. The downside was that a caution was desperately needed, for without it, Stewart would have to pit out of sequence to finally fill up with gas.
Stewart's quick pace enabled him to get out ahead of race leader Kurt Busch and stay there following a lap-192 restart, thereby earning one of his two laps back. Then the caution Stewart and Co. needed so badly arrived in the form of Sam Hornish Jr., and Bill Elliott crashing together in turn one on lap 205.
Now only a lap down, Stewart was in contention to earn a "lucky dog," the designation given to the first driver a lap down when the caution flag comes out. The driver in that position gets his lap back, and in turn, is back in position to race with the leaders.
Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Stewart's SHR teammate Ryan Newman were all eligible for the "lucky dog." Harvick had the first car one lap down when the next caution came out on lap 216.
Thanks to a smart, two-tire only call by Grubb on lap 221, Stewart was able to restart the race in 13th position and ahead of Burton and Newman to put himself in position to secure the "lucky dog." Running lap times as fast, if not faster, than the leaders, Stewart held the position until the caution flag waved again on lap 261 for debris.
Back on the lead lap, Stewart was back in business. In 12th-place with a little over 100 laps remaining, Stewart worked his way toward the top-10. On lap 306, he passed three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to crack the top-10 for the first time all day. The No. 14 pit crew then earned Stewart a spot on pit road during the team's final stop of the day on lap 323 while under caution for debris, which forced the race into overtime.
With a green-white-checkered finish looming, Stewart restarted in ninth and then passed Martin Truex Jr., for eighth with one lap to go. He battled Kasey Kahne to the finish line for seventh, but Kahne nipped Stewart for the spot as the checkered flag dropped.
"We were able to beat guys in the center of the corner where they were tight, and we were a little bit free, but we could still make ground on them," said Stewart, co-owner of SHR with Oxnard, Calif.-based Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world. "We got two laps down early and it took us the whole race to recover from it, and you never get back good track position. When we were able to get up there with the No. 2 (Busch) and actually lead the pack, it was a whole different racecar than it was way back there where we were.
"It wasn't a question of whether we gamble one time and take two (tires), after he (Grubb) explained it to me, it was a brilliant move to get track position. There were only three of us on the same lap at that point and we were able to get a lap back because of it. That helped us to get in that position to be on the lead lap at the end and have a shot to run up front."
"Tony just drove the hell out of it and kept it up all day," said Grubb, only the second crew chief Stewart has ever had in his 11-year Sprint Cup career. "He got the best out of it every run, then when it came time to push it and get his lap back, he did. He actually went past the leader of the race to get a lap back and he was the only guy to do that. That was pretty neat to see, and it gave us a chance to get to the one-lap down group and do a little strategy to get out front and be able to get that 'lucky dog' when it did come up.
"It was a long day, a good day. I think it showed what this team is all about. We aren't going to give up. Tony doesn't give up. We're all going to keep working as hard as we can to figure out what we were missing today. I don't think there was anybody out there that really handled well. The No. 2 car pretty much had everybody covered, but even he had his issues and didn't really handle that great all day either. We have a little bit of homework to do so when we come back we will be even stronger. We will keep moving forward."
"This is a pretty resilient group," added Bobby Hutchens, director of competition for SHR. "They do a lot of good planning before the race and during the week at the shop and I think it shows on Sundays. The pit crew has been spot on and I think Darian has made some good calls in the pits, and as we saw today, Tony is the only person I know of all year that has gotten a lap back the old-fashioned way. He got up on the wheel and got it done when he had to. I think the consistency there will get us a 'W' before long if we keep diggin' like we are going."
Newman's No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet Impala SS suffered engine problems in the race's last 100 laps, as his V-8 engine was forced to run on only seven cylinders. He finished three laps down in 22nd. Despite the outcome, Newman gained one spot to rise to 32nd in the standings where he is 310 points out of first.
Busch, who led six times for 234 of 330 laps, beat point leader Gordon by .332 of a second to win the Kobalt Tools 500 and score the 19th victory of his Sprint Cup career and his second at Atlanta. The victory also marked the second time in less than a year that the Busch brothers have won back-to-back races, as younger brother Kyle Busch won last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In July 2008, Kurt Busch won a rain-shortened race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, while Kyle won the series' next race at Daytona.
Finishing third at Atlanta was Carl Edwards, while Harvick and Brian Vickers rounded out the top-five. Clint Bowyer, Kahne, Stewart, Johnson and Truex comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 11 caution periods for 54 laps, with 10 drivers failing to finish the race.
The Sprint Cup Series takes a rare weekend off before heading to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway for the March 22 Food City 500. The race begins at 2 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its pre-race show at 1:30 p.m.