MARTINSVILLE, Va., (April 8, 2001) - The day was hot. The day was long. The day was painful. It must have been a day at Martinsville. Tony Stewart endured it all, charging from his 16th place starting position to finish seventh in the Virginia...
MARTINSVILLE, Va., (April 8, 2001) - The day was hot. The day was long. The day was painful. It must have been a day at Martinsville.
Tony Stewart endured it all, charging from his 16th place starting position to finish seventh in the Virginia 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
With temperatures in the low-90s pushing in-car temperatures to nearly 130 degrees, Stewart's Home Depot Pontiac felt like an oven. His right heel bore the brunt of the heat, as it was burned to the bone after spending nearly four hours on the metal floorboard that separates his feet from the exhaust pipes.
Stewart succumbed to the pain only after the checkered flag waved. For the 500 laps that he endured, Stewart raced around the .526-mile oval with gritty intensity.
He cracked the top-10 by lap 33, and stayed there until the first pit stop on lap 58. There, a four-tire change was made while other teams only took two tires. The scheduled pit stop dropped Stewart to 18th in the running order, but fresh left side rubber allowed Stewart to quickly gain on those who opted for two tires.
Another round of pit stops shuffled the running order on lap 115, but Stewart stayed within striking distance of the top-10.
But during a pit stop while under caution on lap 203, The Home Depot Racing Team suffered a setback. After changing right side tires during a four-tire stop, the jack dropped before the rear tire changer had a chance to pull the hose from his air wrench out from under the right rear tire. When he came around the car to change the left rear tire, his gun couldn't reach the hub.
The jackman had to return to the right side of the car and raise it so that the air hose could be pulled out. Once that was done, work could resume on the left side. The whole ordeal was excruciatingly long, and it dropped the #20 machine back to 26th.
While the crew was disappointed with their performance, Stewart rallied them over the radio, saying, "It's not over yet boys. We can still get back up there."
To prove his point, Stewart climbed to 12th just before the midway point. Solid pit work ensued, with 15-second pit stops delivered consistently despite constant chassis adjustments.
Stewart radioed that while his Home Depot ride handled well coming off the corners, it was too tight in the center of the corners. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli tweaked and tuned the chassis through minute air pressure, track bar and wedge adjustments during the remaining three pit stops of the afternoon.
It all seemed to work, as Stewart steadily improved his lap times and position. By lap 375 he was back in the top-10, hunting down those in front of him.
A final four-tire pit stop on lap 453 was all that Stewart needed to make his final charge. Even though he emerged from the pits in 14th place, as there were some drivers who opted not to pit, Stewart reasserted himself as a top-10 contender.
First to go down was Ward Burton, followed by Bill Elliott a few laps later. Rusty Wallace was next, then Jeff Gordon and Jerry Nadeau in succession. Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell by the wayside with less than 20 laps remaining, while Jimmy Spencer was picked off with just 10 laps remaining.
Eventually, time ran out. Seventh-place was as far as Stewart would go, but getting there left him tuckered out and burnt up.
"Considering the circumstances we had, as far as starting 16th, working our way into the top-10 and then having a pit stop where the jack came down and the air hose was underneath the tire, which took us from almost 10th to 26th - to work our way back to seventh by the end of the day, I'm proud of the guys," said Stewart as he laid down the in the lounge of the transporter, unaware that his day's effort vaulted him from 17th to 13th in the championship point standings. "They never gave up. I never gave up. It felt good to run up front again.
"I was really warm in the car today, but we learned some things at Homestead (Fla.) last year for when we get into situations like what we had today, and every time we did something it worked. At every pit stop they just kept packing me with ice, making it better and better for me inside the car. I'm getting more confident that even when we get to the really, really hot days this summer - days like today - that we're going to be fine."
More than fine was Dale Jarrett, who posted his third victory of the season. He beat Robert Yates Racing teammate Ricky Rudd to the line by 1.388 seconds for his 27th career victory. Jarrett has now won three of the last four NASCAR Winston Cup Series races and currently has 123-point advantage over Jeff Gordon in the championship point standings.
Rudd's second-place effort was his best since he won at Martinsville in September of 1998. Jeff Burton came home third, while Bobby Hamilton and Sterling Marlin rounded out the top-five.
The Winston Cup Series takes next weekend off in observance of Easter, returning to action April 22 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for the Talladega 500. The race, set to begin at 1 p.m. EDT, will be telecast live on FOX.
-Home Depot Racing