Stewart grabs eleventh at Martinsville, maintains point lead. MARTINSVILLE, Va., (Oct. 20, 2002) - It took Tony Stewart a little over 200 laps to drive his ...
Stewart grabs eleventh at Martinsville, maintains point lead.
MARTINSVILLE, Va., (Oct. 20, 2002) - It took Tony Stewart a little over 200 laps to drive his #20 Home Depot Pontiac from 31st to first in Sunday's Old Dominion 500 NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway, but the typical beating and banging that accompanies racing at Martinsville's .526-mile oval eventually took its toll, relegating Stewart to an 11th place finish.
The strength of Stewart's orange and black Pontiac was made evident right from the start of the 500-lap race. The Home Depot driver quickly erased the disappointment of Friday's 31st place qualifying effort by passing cars at will. Whether it was in the high groove, the low groove, entering the corner or exiting the corner, Stewart made racing at Martinsville look easy.
He capped his impressive charge on lap 204, when he took the lead from Ward Burton. Stewart held the point for another circuit before Burton regained the spot. While short-lived, the lead did afford Stewart the five precious bonus points accredited to any driver who leads at least one lap.
Shortly thereafter, the caution flag waved, sending much of the field to pit road for scheduled service. The #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team made a flawless four-tire stop, but found themselves mired in midfield as other teams had opted for two tires, thereby leapfrogging Stewart in the pits.
Despite the shuffled running order, no one atop The Home Depot war wagon was overly concerned. After all, the car was strong at the hands of Stewart, and the race was far from over.
Just as he had at the beginning of the race, Stewart again picked his way toward the lead. He cracked the top-10 by lap 227, re-setting his sights on the lead pack. By lap 340, Stewart was flirting in and out of the top-five, waiting patiently to make his move to the front.
But the scrappy nature of Martinsville's tight confines, that had so far spared Stewart, suddenly made itself very apparent on lap 342. As Stewart exited turn four, he became the meat in a sheet metal sandwich, as the Ford of Dale Jarrett and the Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. placed Stewart between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Stewart's front fenders were flattened in on the tires, and the crush panels inside the cockpit were ripped apart.
The incident was minor, but NASCAR threw the caution, sending the field into the pits. Quick work by The Home Depot over-the-wall crew that included changing four tires, replenishing the fuel and re-shaping the fenders allowed Stewart to restart the race on lap 347 from the ninth spot.
But the damage incurred from the incident had affected the car just enough to take it out of contention for the remaining laps. With the #20 machine's front-end geometry slightly out of line, Stewart dropped back to 14th in the running order. But after experimenting with some different lines on the race track, Stewart made due with what he had, coaxing an 11th place finish from a battered and beaten Home Depot Pontiac.
"It's hard to believe a car that good just basically went to pot," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli, as his driver recovered in the lounge of the team's transporter, exhausted after 500 laps of turning left. "I don't know if the rear-end housing got bent over (from the incident with Jarrett and Earnhardt Jr.) or if we just didn't do a good job of adjusting on it. We really didn't need much. It's a shame. I thought we had a really good top-five car - maybe a shot at winning. But, it didn't turn out that way."
While the race didn't go as scripted for Stewart and Co., the outfit still left Martinsville atop the Winston Cup point standings. Only 15 points were lost to second-place Jimmie Johnson, whose sixth-place effort edged him to within 82 points of the lead. Third-place Mark Martin, meanwhile, finished 10th, losing one point and dropping to 123 markers back. Fourth-place Ryan Newman is 174 points back, while Rusty Wallace is 177 points arrears.
Enjoying a perfect day was Kurt Busch, who secured his second career win over a very determined but still winless Johnny Benson. Ricky Rudd, Earnhardt Jr. and Burton rounded out the top-five.
Just four races remain, with the next event on the Winston Cup schedule being the Oct. 27 NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Live coverage by NBC begins at 12:30 p.m. EDT.