Stewart Takes a Top-10 in Atlanta HAMPTON, Ga., (Nov. 18, 2001) - Until Sunday's NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the 1.54-mile track had been a sore point for The Home Depot Racing Team. It was one of only two tracks on the Winston Cup ...
Stewart Takes a Top-10 in Atlanta
HAMPTON, Ga., (Nov. 18, 2001) - Until Sunday's NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the 1.54-mile track had been a sore point for The Home Depot Racing Team.
It was one of only two tracks on the Winston Cup circuit where Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart hadn't scored a top-10 finish, and it had also been the site of three straight DNFs (Did Not Finish).
But in his sixth career NASCAR Winston Cup Series start at Atlanta, Stewart led three times for a total of 33 laps before fading back to a respectable ninth-place finish.
The time the team spent testing at Atlanta Oct. 16-17 paid dividends as soon as the green flag dropped on the 325-lap affair. Stewart darted from his 12th place starting spot to fifth in just two laps, and had made his way to second prior to a caution on lap 17.
The top-three at the time were Dave Blaney, Stewart and Mark Martin, and all three stayed out on the race track while the rest of the field headed to pit road for their first stop of the day.
However, had they opted for a do-over, Blaney, Stewart and Martin would have elected to pit. But just as there's no crying in baseball, there are no do-overs in racing.
When the race restarted on lap 21, Stewart quickly took the lead from Blaney. But by lap 28, those with fresher tires had descended upon the top-three. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the first to pass Stewart, taking the point on lap 30. Then came Jeff Gordon on lap 34, Bill Elliott on lap 41 and Ricky Craven on lap 42. Riding in fourth, Stewart calmly called over the radio, "We're hanging in there."
A round of green flag pit stops were made just after lap 60, and once the pit cycle was completed, Stewart returned to the lead at lap 86. But those who were able to pit later than Stewart were soon beating on the bumper of The Home Depot Pontiac. On lap 107, Earnhardt Jr., Craven and Gordon all passed Stewart and relegated him to fourth.
When the second caution flag of the day waved on lap 108, Stewart shouted, "That's what we needed," for now everyone was on the same pit cycle.
Stewart came out of the pits in second and held that spot even after the race restarted on lap 112. But Earnhardt Jr. and Craven engaged in a spirited battle with Stewart for the lead on lap 114 that lasted for a handful of laps, with Stewart eventually falling to third.
A lap 120 caution period and the ensuing restart on lap 128 allowed Stewart to retake the lead, albeit briefly, as Earnhardt Jr. reaffirmed his claim to the lead on lap 134.
Stewart wouldn't lead again, but he stayed strong within the top-five until lap 295, when Dale Jarrett passed Stewart for fifth. A Home Depot Pontiac that became increasingly tight as the sun sank lower in the sky and the track became cooler forced Stewart to play defense. He faded more in the last 30 laps than he had all day, eventually finishing ninth.
But considering his Atlanta track record, ninth suited Stewart just fine.
"I just got tighter as the day wore on," said Stewart. "The guys kept working on it and trying to make changes, but we didn't want to go too far and get loose. That was the big thing.
"But we had a really good car there early on. It was really rolling around here. That's the best we've ever run here, so I feel like we had a really good day."
Also having a good day was Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, who won the NAPA 500 when Jerry Nadeau's seemingly good day went bad. Nadeau was leading handily on the final lap when his #25 Chevrolet ran out of gas on the backstretch, handing the win to Labonte. It was Labonte's 18th career Winston Cup victory, his fifth at Atlanta and his second of the season.
Sterling Marlin finished third, followed by rookie Kevin Harvick, Nadeau and Ward Burton.
Jeff Gordon officially clinched his fourth Winston Cup championship via a sixth-place finish in the NAPA 500, but that doesn't mean drivers can stop racing for points. Five drivers among the current top-10 in points changed positions in Atlanta, and nine of the top-10 drivers in the point standings can change position at New Hampshire. Stewart is just one example.
His ninth-place run coupled with Ricky Rudd's 35th place showing allowed Stewart to take over second in the championship point standings. Stewart came into the NAPA 500 third in the standings, trailing second-place Rudd by 59 points. He emerged in second with a 26-point lead over third-place Rudd, a 42-point lead over fourth-place Sterling Marlin, and a 130-point lead over fifth-place Dale Jarrett.
If Stewart maintains his second-place standing in the points following the New Hampshire 300, he will receive an additional $358,000 - the difference between second and third in the final point fund payout by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
The final race on the Winston Cup schedule is the Nov. 23 New Hampshire 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon. The race, set to begin at 12 p.m. EST, will be televised live by NBC.