Daytona II: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart Dominates Daytona Home Depot Driver Earns First Point-Paying Win in a Restrictor Plate Race DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (July 3, 2005) - Tony Stewart started from the pole and led all but nine laps in Saturday night's Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL ...

Stewart Dominates Daytona
Home Depot Driver Earns First Point-Paying Win in a Restrictor Plate Race

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (July 3, 2005) - Tony Stewart started from the pole and led all but nine laps in Saturday night's Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway, earning his first point-paying restrictor plate victory and his 21st career Nextel Cup win in the 160-lap race.

Stewart culminated the dominating run by climbing atop the frontstretch catchfencing - all the way to the flag stand - to take the checkered flag with him to victory lane.

"Once I started I was committed, and I wasn't going to let the fans down," said Stewart about his Spiderman-like display. "But I think I'm officially - well, it's unofficial until it's verified, I guess - but I think I'm unofficially the first guy that's gone all the way to the top and over and onto the flag stand."

Stewart's post-race climb came around 1:45 a.m. on Sunday, as the start of the race was delayed by nearly three hours due to rain. And when the rains finally abated, Stewart's reign began.

The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet led the first 103 laps, thanks to a perfect race car that was augmented by perfect pit stops.

One of the few times where Stewart didn't lead was following a caution on lap 103.

Several cars didn't pit while Stewart received four fresh tires and a full tank of fuel. After the scheduled stop, Stewart restarted fifth on lap 106. It was only a matter of time before The Home Depot Chevrolet was back on point.

With a powerhouse engine from Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart sliced through the cars ahead of him to re-take the lead on lap 110.

A caution on lap 114 brought all but the top-three cars back onto pit road. Knowing that another pit stop was necessary before the end of the race, crew chief Greg Zipadelli kept Stewart on the track, with Elliott Sadler and Jamie McMurray following suit.

When the green flag waved again on lap 117, Stewart, Sadler and McMurray pulled away from the rest of the field. Their competition soon returned, however, as Jimmie Johnson - who was stuck on Stewart's rear bumper during the #20's first stint in the lead - worked his way back into second, jettisoning Sadler.

During this exchange, Stewart pulled away from the draft. But with perennial powerhouse Dale Earnhardt Jr. looming ever closer in his rear view mirror, Stewart knew it wouldn't be long before he was challenged for the top spot. Although Earnhardt was able to pull up beside Stewart, he couldn't complete the pass.

"Normally in July, we're all fighting a lack of grip and we're loose or tight or drifting up the race track," said Stewart. "We really never had a complaint with the race car. We just kept working on it and trying to make it faster.

"Normally I'm screaming and yelling, but I never complained once about it. We were a little tight in practice and a little tight tonight, actually. But you know you've got a car that's close when you make the changes that we made and the car responds to it."

Stewart's biggest break of the night occurred via a late-race caution with 19 laps remaining - enabling him to come onto pit road for some much-needed fuel. Taking four tires and loading The Home Depot Chevrolet with fuel, Stewart returned to the track in fifth with just 17 laps to go.

But the same power Stewart showed earlier in the race was displayed again. He forged his way to the front with a gutsy, four-wide pass on lap 145 that sealed his Daytona victory.

"When I made my move, it was two-wide at the time and then I made it three-wide," said Stewart. "Then I heard the spotter go 'four-wide.' We weren't there very long. That's not a position I wanted to be in. The duration of time we were three-wide wasn't very long, and it was even a shorter amount of time that we were four-wide. Jamie McMurray gave me the push from behind and gave me enough of a run that when we got out there, I got four-wide and I could clear it."

Leading the final 16 laps, Stewart took the checkered flag by a margin of .171 seconds over second-place McMurray. Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett comprised the rest of the top-five, while rounding out the top-10 were Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mike Wallace, Matt Kenseth and Ken Schrader.

After winning last Sunday at the road course in Sonoma, Calif., Stewart's second straight victory moved him into third in the championship point standings, 136 points arrears series leader Johnson. Second-place Greg Biffle is 73 points behind Johnson and 63 points ahead of Stewart.

Stewart's back-to-back triumphs at Sonoma and Daytona marked the fourth time in his seven-year Nextel Cup career that he has logged back-to-back wins. In 1999, Stewart's second career Nextel Cup win at Phoenix in November was followed one week later by his win at Homestead (Fla.). And twice in 2000 Stewart scored back-to-back wins - in June at Dover (Del.) and Michigan and again in late September and early October with wins at Dover and Martinsville (Va.).

Stewart's attempt for three wins in a row will come where he's the defending race winner - the July 10 USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. The race begins at 3:35 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by NBC.

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Series NASCAR-CUP