Martinsville: Tony Stewart race report

Third-place at Martinsville. No consolation to Stewart and Co. MARTINSVILLE, Va., (April 14, 2002) - A third-place finish in a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race is a pretty good accomplishment. Careers have been made by finishing third here and ...

Third-place at Martinsville.
No consolation to Stewart and Co.

MARTINSVILLE, Va., (April 14, 2002) - A third-place finish in a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race is a pretty good accomplishment. Careers have been made by finishing third here and there over the course of several years.

But when you lead 152 laps in a 500-lap race - the most of any driver - and you clearly have the car to beat, third-place sucks. Just ask Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli, third-place finishers in Sunday's Virginia 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac, and Zipadelli, his crew chief, had the field covered. They came from their eighth-place starting spot to first in the course of 118 laps, and held the point for 139 circuits before a scheduled pit stop on lap 256 jumbled the running order.

There, race leader Stewart came to pit road for a routine four-tire pit stop, but a stalled engine prolonged Stewart's stay. The extra seconds on pit road dropped Stewart to 11th, but no one was too concerned. After all, the car and Stewart were strong and the race was far from over.

Just as he had made his toward the front at the beginning of the race, Stewart again picked his way toward the lead. He made it to second by lap 355, passing Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte in the process.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the lead, Stewart in second and Labonte in third, the caution flag waved on lap 366. All those on the lead lap headed to pit road, with some teams opting for two tires over the standard four. Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Hamilton and Ricky Rudd all took on two tires, while Stewart, Terry Labonte, Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Ricky Craven and Matt Kenseth took four.

The race restarted on lap 373, but it would only be a short while before the caution flag waved again on lap 405. Stewart managed his way past Rudd for fourth just before the caution flag fell, then picked up third spot when his crew performed a flawless two-tire stop on lap 408.

Stewart wasn't the only one to pit road, nor was he the only one who took on two tires. This mixed up the running order again, with Jeff Burton as the leader and Hamilton in second.

As soon as the race restarted, Stewart followed Hamilton to the outside of Burton. Hamilton took the lead on lap 415, while Stewart passed Burton for second a lap later. The chase for the lead was on, only to be interrupted by another caution on lap 426. Everyone stayed out however, and when the race resumed four laps later, so did the chase.

Stewart caught Hamilton and passed him on lap 433, reasserting himself as the leader. But when the caution waved yet again, the fate of The Home Depot Racing Team was quickly decided.

The team opted to pit, but only the #55 Chevy of Hamilton followed. Everyone else on the lead lap stayed out.

Instead of making another two-tire stop, four tires were taken at the last moment, for Zipadelli knew Stewart would need all the rubber he could get to make his way back toward the front.

Thirteenth-place was Stewart's position when the race restarted on lap 450, a long way from the front with only 50 laps to get there. But Stewart buckled down, making his way to fifth before a much-needed caution on lap 475 bunched up the field.

The restart came on lap 481, and two laps later Stewart was in fourth after having passed Earnhardt Jr. Needing the race to go green to the end in order to catch third-place Kenseth, second-place Dale Jarrett and leader Labonte, Stewart's surge to the front was thwarted when the second to last caution of the day waved on lap 406. The race didn't go green until lap 493, and all that time allowed was for Stewart to collect third-place from Jarrett.

Fittingly, the race ended under caution when Hamilton and Kyle Petty spun in turn four. Labonte's first win of the 2002 season was sealed, as was the rest of the running order, with Kenseth, Stewart, Jarrett and Earnhardt Jr., rounding out the top-five.

Stewart's third-place run moved him from eighth to fifth in the championship point standings, 147 points behind series leader Sterling Marlin. It was little consolation, however, to the driver and crew chief who saw their 14th career win slip away.

"We had the best car out here all day and we gave it away," said a disgusted Stewart. "I was right with Greg on the call to come in and take two tires, but nobody else came with us and we got screwed by everybody else staying out."

"We committed down pit road, but if we weren't going to beat everybody off that we were going to race with, we should have just stayed out," added Zipadelli. "That was our mistake. Two tires weren't going to do us any good. We came down pit road and only one car followed us - you're an idiot if you don't put four tires on at that point. I was an idiot for coming in. I wasn't going to be an idiot twice in a matter of 15 seconds.

"I figured that everybody would probably come in and put two tires on again. It seemed that everybody had been stopping every 30 or 40 laps. I figured that half would come in and half wouldn't and that we'd be okay because our car was so good that we could race back up to the front. We got one caution when we needed it, but we just didn't need that last one.

"Some days you win, some days you lose, I guess.  I'll take the blame for it.
 We gave a couple other people a top-five finish.  Merry Christmas to them."

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the April 21 Aaron's 499 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EDT.

-jgr/hdr-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Bobby Hamilton , Dale Jarrett , Bobby Labonte , Terry Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Kyle Petty , Sterling Marlin , Ricky Craven , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing