STEWART LEAVES 'MONSTER MILE' UNSCATHED Home Depot Driver Rallies for Top-10 and Climbs to Second in Points While the Monster Mile chewed up and spit out a slew of drivers competing in Sunday's Dodge Dealers 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race ...
STEWART LEAVES 'MONSTER MILE' UNSCATHED
Home Depot Driver Rallies for Top-10 and Climbs to Second in Points
While the Monster Mile chewed up and spit out a slew of drivers competing in Sunday's Dodge Dealers 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Tony Stewart left the high-banked oval with his 20th top-10 finish of the season and just two points between him and the championship point lead.
The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) rallied from his 28th-place starting position to finish ninth in the 400-lap race. But Stewart had to overcome a petulant race car and a bevy of accidents that accounted for 13 caution periods totaling 66 laps.
Stewart's Home Depot Chevrolet was tight from the middle of the track's corners right through to when he needed to get back on the gas. He described his car as "plowing like a dump truck." It was a characteristic that crew chief Greg Zipadelli chased for much of the race, as he threw track bar, wedge and air pressure adjustments at the car in an effort to cure its handling woes.
It was a fitful experience, as the race pace set by leader Matt Kenseth put Stewart a lap down just before the halfway mark. But when the caution flag waved on lap 205 for a two-car accident on the frontstretch, an aggressive air pressure adjustment on the team's subsequent pit stop seemed to be the No. 20 car's elixir.
Stewart began to climb out of the sub-20s on the leaderboard and was able to glimpse the top-10. But the pace of the leaders was still stout, with fewer and fewer cars remaining on the lead lap.
That was good news for Stewart and Co. While they were never in position to get their lap back, the more cars that fell off the lead lap meant the more cars they could pass for position.
With a race car finally handling to Stewart's liking and some deft moves in avoiding a 10-car melee on lap 387 that collected two championship contenders, Stewart picked his way to 10th when the race restarted with 12 laps to go. And when Kenseth, who had led four times for a race-high 192 laps, had his engine blow up on that restart, Stewart gained one more spot to finish ninth.
"We just kept fighting all day," said Stewart, who swept the two Nextel Cup races at Dover in 2000. "After the first 200 laps, we hit on something the car liked and got on a good run there. We were just trying to chase the No. 17 (Kenseth) and stay close to him, but he was so fast we never could get our lap back. But we made huge gains today on the car. I'm pretty proud of this team. We had a 30th-place car for 200 laps and then we ended up with a top-10. And toward the end of the day there was a lot of chaos. Everybody was fighting for everything they could get."
What Stewart got was another step closer to the championship point lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. He gained one spot to climb to second in points, and now the two-time Nextel Cup titlist is just two points behind series leader Jeff Gordon.
"If there was one place I was worried about, it was here," said Stewart of the aptly named Monster Mile. "So to salvage a top-10 out of it with the way we started the day, and to stay as close as we did to the point lead and be second in the points right now, that's exactly what we needed to do. There were a lot of good cars that are in the Chase that had a bad day today, and not having a bad day is what you've got to do.
"We had to run a little harder than the guys who were leading. I'm sure they were able to save a little bit. But we finally got in the range where we were halfway decent. We were able to do what we needed to do."
Chase drivers that struggled were Kenseth (finished 35th, engine), Kurt Busch (finished 29th, accident), Kevin Harvick (20th, four laps down) and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson (14th, two laps down after being involved in late-race accident). Also included in that group was Stewart's JGR teammate Denny Hamlin, who endured the worst finish of the Chase drivers, as an accident left him 38th despite having led twice for 61 laps earlier in the race.
Stewart's other JGR teammate, J.J. Yeley, didn't fare much better. His involvement in the lap-387 melee left him and nine other cars with heavy damage. It proved too much for Yeley's Chevrolet, as he was forced to the garage where it was determined his car was unfixable. His result: 33rd.