Michigan: Tony Stewart race report

STEWART MUSTERS A TOP-THREE FINISH AT MICHIGAN Home Depot Driver Picks Up 40 Positions in Citizens Bank 400 Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team overcame a lot to finish third in Sunday's Citizens Bank 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup ...

STEWART MUSTERS A TOP-THREE FINISH AT MICHIGAN
Home Depot Driver Picks Up 40 Positions in Citizens Bank 400

Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team overcame a lot to finish third in Sunday's Citizens Bank 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. A 41st place qualifying effort on Friday and an accident with less than 20 minutes remaining in Saturday's final practice session were two bits of adversity the team had to conquer.

Conquer they did, as Stewart took his Joe Gibbs Racing-prepared Chevrolet from dead last in the 43-car field to finish third when the checkered flag dropped after two hours and 42 minutes of racing.

"I made sure I crossed the start/finish line at the green dead last," said Stewart about lagging behind at the start of the race. "I made sure (A.J.) Allmendinger got by me so I could say I went from dead last to wherever we finished. From 43rd to third, that's a pretty good day. I'm not going to complain about that at all."

Stewart was never all that concerned with his sub-par qualifying result. Four hundred miles at the two-mile Michigan International Speedway gives one plenty of time to make up positions. But the incident in Saturday's final practice session did make Stewart and his Home Depot crew do some extra work before starting the 200-lap race on Sunday.

Stewart's accident came when David Gilliland checked up going into turn one, but gave no warning to those behind him that he was slowing down. Stewart had a full head of speed off the front straightaway and had committed himself to going low around Gilliland. But with Gilliland's rapid and unexpected deceleration, Stewart clipped the left rear corner of Gilliland's Ford.

The damage to Stewart's car was cosmetic, but extensive. Crew members had to work until the garage closed on Saturday and again Sunday morning to reshape the right front nose, fender and passenger side door. But by the time it had to be presented to NASCAR for pre-race inspection, the car looked as if nothing had ever happened.

"I'm really proud of our Home Depot guys," Stewart said. "We were all here until 4:30 p.m. yesterday working on our right front fender and those guys never complained about it. It will be interesting to see if this thing was 100 percent or not, but to get it back to third-place the way it was, I though it was pretty impressive for our whole team."

With a Home Depot Chevrolet that was seemingly as good as new, Stewart began his charge toward the front. He was 25th by lap 45 and cracked the top-10 on lap 83. And when a bunch of the front-runners bunched together on lap 87, Stewart swung low and passed them all to climb to fourth. Solidly in the top-five, he would never leave.

"It was a warm day and that's what I was hoping for," Stewart said. "It seems like when this track gets hot and slick, that's when we go our best. I was hoping for a clear day like this. We got perfect weather for what we needed to do today and ended up with a top-three. I can't say it feels as good as a win, but considering where we were with 20 minutes to go in Happy Hour (final practice) yesterday, this might as well be a win. To have that stupid deal yesterday and then have to start at the back because I screwed up in qualifying, it was just a multiplier. We all just kept working hard and the message on the dash said it all -- 'one at a time.' That's what we did all day, and we ended up with a top-five."

As the race neared its conclusion, fuel mileage began to factor in for some teams. The No. 20 team wasn't one of them, and when reigning Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson pitted for fuel on lap 192 and gave up his second-place position, Stewart stayed in the gas. Martin Truex Jr., inherited second and Stewart took over third. And as Carl Edwards crossed the stripe 3.668 seconds ahead of Truex, Stewart was comfortably in third, as plenty of real estate stood between him and Truex and fourth-place finisher Casey Mears.

Despite the strong run, Stewart actually dropped a position in the championship point standings. The two-time Nextel Cup champion is now seventh in points, 489 behind series leader Jeff Gordon.

-credit: jgr

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Series NASCAR-CUP