Stewart Soldiers to Seventh at Pocono
LONG POND, Pa., (June 17, 2001) - Five hundred mile races at Pocono Raceway tend to make for long days, and Sunday's Pocono 500 NASCAR Winston Cup Series event was no different.
When it was all said and done, Tony Stewart finished seventh, solidifying his fifth-place standing in the points.
Stewart started the three-hour and 43-minute affair from the fourth spot and held his position until the team's first pit stop during a caution period on lap 12. Four fresh Goodyears were added to The Home Depot Pontiac along with a splash of gas and a round of wedge. All was well, or so it seemed.
Unbeknownst to crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the rest of the #20 team was NASCAR's plan to throw the caution flag on lap 25 to allow teams to check tire wear. The pit steward monitoring the #20 team's pit area as well as those of the #44 and the #12 teams managed to get word to the #44 and the #12 - but not to The Home Depot team prior to their lap-12 pit stop. When Stewart's pit stop was finished, that was when the pit steward notified Zipadelli of NASCAR's plans to install a competition yellow on lap 25.
The news did not sit well with Zipadelli, who argued that had he known about the competition yellow prior to the start of the race, he never would have called Stewart to the pits on lap 12.
When lap 25 rolled around, there were too many green flag laps on Stewart's tires to not bring him to pit road. Tires that had 13 more laps on them than those that were brand new would be slow, and both Stewart and Zipadelli knew this. They had no other choice but to pit.
As a result, Stewart dropped all the way back to 16th in what was shaping up to be a single-file race. With track position at a premium, losing 12 positions because of misinformation was a bitter pill for the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing outfit to swallow.
But swallow it they did, as NASCAR's call stood.
The handling of Stewart's Home Depot Pontiac wasn't perfect by any means, but he still managed to scrape his way into the top-10 by lap 58. Stewart hovered in and out of the top-10 as his crew worked to correct the loose handling condition suffered by his orange and white Pontiac. The pit work was as calculated as it was quick, as tire changes and track bar adjustments were made faster than many of their counterparts.
The best example of this occurred during the team's fifth stop of the day on lap 119. Stewart was in and out of his pit stall just before the yellow flew on lap 120 for the stalled car of Brett Bodine on the backstretch. Stewart returned to the race track and earned valuable track position while many of those in front of him pitted during the caution period. The result was the sixth spot when the race resumed on lap 125.
But Stewart slowly dropped to eighth as his car became looser and looser as the laps wore on. A significant chassis adjustment was made on the team's final stop while under caution on lap 159.
The change seemed to help, as did the full tank of fuel that Stewart now had along with him. With a long, green flag run to the finish seemingly in the works, fuel mileage was crucial. Some teams could go the distance, others could not. The #20 car was close, and upon returning to the race track, Zipadelli radioed to his driver, "Put it in high gear and save all the fuel you can."
Stewart did his best to be a fuel miser, but his competitive desire was still apparent. He passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte on lap 188 for seventh, and then set his sights on sixth-place Matt Kenseth before Zipadelli again cautioned Stewart about his fuel mileage.
As the 200-lap race reached its conclusion, Stewart held seventh while Ricky Rudd cruised to his first Winston Cup victory in 88 races. He was followed by point leader Jeff Gordon and Gordon's nearest championship pursuers - Dale Jarrett (third) and Sterling Marling (fourth). Mark Martin rounded out the top-five.
But for Stewart, there was still some unfinished business that merited his attention.
He quickly excited his Home Depot Pontiac parked on the lift-gate of the #20 team's transporter and headed to the lounge to change. With street clothes on, Stewart hastily made his way toward the NASCAR transporter, as there were some issues that needed to be discussed with the powers-that-be.
Approximately 40 minutes later Stewart emerged from the NASCAR hauler and summed up his meeting in a few words.
"It wasn't a meeting about being upset about stuff," said Stewart. "I just went up to ask them a couple of questions. Again, it wasn't anything I was upset about or anything like that. I just went up to ask a couple of questions that didn't pertain to anything that happened today, to be honest. It was just some things that I wanted to talk to them about from the past. Actually, we laughed a lot. It was kind of a fun meeting."
But when asked about his race, it seemed to be nowhere near as fun as his "meeting."
"I wasn't real happy," said Stewart, "but I am really proud of my guys. They never gave up all day. They kept working hard on the car, but we just couldn't get to where we wanted to be."
Where Stewart will be next weekend is at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., for the Dodge/Save Mart 350k. The first of two road course races on the Winston Cup schedule takes place on June 24 at 3:30 p.m. EDT. FOX will provide live coverage of the event in its last telecast of the 2001 Winston Cup season. NBC will take over coverage of the rest of the Winston Cup season beginning with the July 7 Pepsi 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.