Darlington Lives Up to Its Name Stewart Finishes 17th at the 'Track Too Tough To Tame' DARLINGTON, S.C., (Nov. 14, 2004) - Ever since Johnny Mantz won the first ever Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway back in 1950, the 1.366-mile egg-shaped...
Darlington Lives Up to Its Name
Stewart Finishes 17th at the 'Track Too Tough To Tame'
DARLINGTON, S.C., (Nov. 14, 2004) - Ever since Johnny Mantz won the first ever Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway back in 1950, the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval has proven to be a difficult race track for even the most seasoned NASCAR drivers to navigate. Sunday's Mountain Dew Southern 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race proved no different, as 2002 series champion Tony Stewart labored to a 17th place finish.
The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet started the 367-lap race in sixth thanks to Friday's qualifying session being rained-out and the field being set by points, but that was as close to the front as Stewart would get.
Stewart began the four-hour race with a tight race car that quickly went loose - way loose. Just 20 laps in, Stewart radioed, "It started out tight but now it's getting a little loose." By lap 30 Stewart declared that he was "wrecking loose".
As the octaves in Stewart's voice heightened the further the #20 machine dropped in the rundown. By lap 50, Stewart was out of the top-10.
The first of the team's 11 pit stops yielded wholesale changes. Three rounds of wedge went into the left rear corner of the car while the track bar was lowered two rounds. A significant air pressure adjustment was also made, with a one-pound increase in all but the right rear tire. But despite the changes, the car was still loose.
More changes were made during the next caution period on lap 83, yet Stewart continued his backward slide. By lap 95 he was 25th. "I don't know what I can do to go any faster," he lamented.
The silver lining was crew chief Greg Zipadelli's dogged determination to make the #20 car better. Fighting flu-like symptoms while also fighting his ill-handling race car, Zipadelli's constant chassis adjustments kept Stewart on the lead lap. And as Darlington's tight confines were creating even worse days for The Home Depot Racing Team's competitors, the #20 squad kept Stewart in the hunt for a respectable finish.
It was that never-say-die outlook that turned what could have been a disaster into merely a nuisance.
Following a lap 309 restart where the #20 had climbed to 12th via a quick, four-tire pit stop, Stewart came over the radio and asked if the crew had gotten all the lugnuts tight. There was a vibration that wouldn't go away, and despite assurances from those who handle the air wrenches that the lugs were secure, Stewart knew something was awry.
He was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop under green on lap 321. Four new tires were bolted on and away Stewart went, losing only one lap to the leader.
Now mired in 17th, it still wasn't all that bad. Because of Zipadelli's perseverance in trying to make The Home Depot Chevrolet better, the team had managed to stay on the lead lap for much of the race while many of their counterparts fell two laps off the pace.
Stewart was on a lap all his own, the only driver one lap down. As the race wound to a finish, Stewart drove conservatively, knowing that there was nothing to gain and nothing to lose as long as the car was running competitive lap times.
When the checkered flag waved, 10 of the 43 cars that started the race didn't finish, while 16 more cars finished two laps down. Seventeenth was all Stewart's.
"I'm glad this is over," said Stewart, echoing the sentiment of anyone else wearing orange and black.
The poor finish went beyond a result in a single race, as it eliminated Stewart and Co. from championship contention. They remain sixth in points heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but only the top-five drivers are still eligible for this year's title by remaining within the 156-point window - the most points any one driver can possibly gain on another driver in a single race.
Winning the Mountain Dew Southern 500 was Jimmie Johnson, who scored his 14th career Nextel Cup victory and his eighth of the season, two more than any other driver. Mark Martin came in second, while Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne rounded-out the rest of the top-five. Comprising the remainder of the top-10 were Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Joe Nemechek, Bobby Labonte and Mike Bliss.
Live coverage of the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway begins at 1 p.m. EST on NBC.