Stewart's String of Top-Five Finishes Stops at Phoenix Lap 229 Crash Results in 18th Place Finish, Seventh-Place Point Standing Maintained AVONDALE, Ariz., (Nov. 2, 2003) - Tony Stewart came into the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix ...
Stewart's String of Top-Five Finishes Stops at Phoenix
Lap 229 Crash Results in 18th Place Finish, Seventh-Place Point Standing Maintained
AVONDALE, Ariz., (Nov. 2, 2003) - Tony Stewart came into the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway having scored six straight top-five finishes, but his bid for a seventh straight top-five skidded to a stop on lap 229 when a tap by Rusty Wallace sent Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet Monte Carlo into the turn one wall.
Wallace spun as well, tying up the race track and sending those behind him sideways into Stewart. Bobby Labonte - Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate - piled into the left side of the #20 machine, while Kevin Harvick ran into the back of Labonte. All four cars suffered an array of damage, with Labonte's #18 Chevrolet needing to be towed into the garage area. Stewart, Wallace and Harvick were able to drive back to the pit area for repairs.
The crash effectively ended what looked to be another solid run by Stewart, who had raced in the top-10 for much of the day, including prolonged stints in fifth.
But after a lap 213 pit stop while under caution - where many drivers ahead of Stewart opted for a two-tire change as opposed to four - Stewart found himself in 11th on the lap 217 restart.
Wallace, who was ninth at the restart, soon began falling back. Stewart caught him on lap 227, and passed him for 10th the following lap. But on lap 229, Wallace tapped Stewart heading into turn one.
The result was heavy left side damage to The Home Depot Chevrolet, especially to the left front corner, where the fender had to be pulled away from the tire. Also damaged was the car's front end geometry, which in order to stay on the lead lap, couldn't be fixed until another caution halted the racing action.
When Jeff Green blew his engine on lap 269, that caution came. Stewart dove onto pit road where crew members jacked up the race car and realigned the front end.
Stewart returned to race track in 29th when the race restarted on lap 275. And with a race car that could now turn much more effectively through the corners, Stewart managed his way to 18th when the checkered flag waved on the 312-lap race.
Winning the Checker Auto Parts 500 was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who nabbed his second win of the season and his first non-restrictor plate triumph since Dover (Del.) in September 2001. It was his ninth Winston Cup victory in 145 career starts. Following Earnhardt to the line in second was Jimmie Johnson, who posted his fifth straight top-10 finish. Pole-sitter Ryan Newman came home third, while Kurt Busch and Michael Waltrip rounded out the top-five.
Stewart's disappointing finish didn't change his standing in the points, as he remained in seventh - the position he has held since winning at Charlotte (N.C.) four weeks ago. However, it virtually put a lock on Stewart's year-end point finish. Stewart is 217 points behind sixth-place Harvick and 205 points ahead of eighth-place Labonte - nearly insurmountable margins with only two races remaining.
Another driver with a seemingly insurmountable margin is series point leader Matt Kenseth, who thanks to a 228-point lead over nearest pursuer Earnhardt, can clinch his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship a week early by leaving the penultimate race on the Winston Cup schedule - the Nov. 9 Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham - with a lead of 186 points or more. If Kenseth leaves Rockingham with a lead of at least 152 points, all he has to do is start the season finale Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and he will become the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion.
The Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 gets underway at 1 p.m. EST with live coverage provided by TNT.