Championship beckons after Stewart snares second. SONOMA, Calif., (June 23, 2002) - Coming into the Dodge/Save Mart 350 at the newly named Infineon Raceway, Tony Stewart was seventh in points, 229 markers behind NASCAR Winston Cup Series point...
Championship beckons after Stewart snares second.
SONOMA, Calif., (June 23, 2002) - Coming into the Dodge/Save Mart 350 at the newly named Infineon Raceway, Tony Stewart was seventh in points, 229 markers behind NASCAR Winston Cup Series point leader Sterling Marlin. Following the 110-lap affair, Stewart's second-place finish enabled him to rise to fifth in the championship standings, 88 points behind Marlin.
The scenario that Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team needed to play out did play out. Those high in the point standings encountered trouble, while Stewart took advantage, driving to a well-deserved podium finish.
Stewart led the first lap from the pole before surrendering it to reigning Winston Cup champ Jeff Gordon. But Gordon, who came into the race third in points, 110 behind Marlin, broke a rear end gear on lap 34, handing the lead back to Stewart.
Gordon wound up finishing a distant 37th and dropped to third in points, 82 behind Marlin. But his misfortune paled in comparison to Marlin's, whose water pump belt broke on lap 11, forcing the engine to overheat. His team made repairs, but the damage was done. The engine let go on lap 19, sending Marlin to the garage area for good with a 43rd place finish - dead last.
Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, wasn't immune to misfortune either. He too broke a rear end gear, wiping away his second-place point standing. While he improved the point margin between himself and Marlin, dropping it from 110 points to 86 points, he also dropped from second to fourth in the standings.
And rounding out the bad luck boys was Matt Kenseth. He came to Sonoma fourth in points, 190 behind Marlin, but suffered the same fate as Gordon and Johnson with a broken rear end gear that shot him to 39th in the final rundown. Kenseth fell three spots in points to eighth, with a 178-point gap between himself and Marlin
Stewart was not the only winner in all of this, as Mark Martin's seventh-place finish at Sonoma bumped him up to second in points. He had been fourth, 174 points arrears Marlin.
But for Stewart and Company, the final outcome was exactly what they needed to get back into the championship chase.
"Today is just what the doctor ordered," said an exhausted Stewart. "We never wish bad luck on anybody, but the '40' (Marlin), the '24' (Gordon), the '48' (Johnson), the '17' (Kenseth) - they all had trouble. That helped us a lot today. We gained a lot of points. A second-place is what this team needed. Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing has been working their guts out to get us caught up from the deficit we've been in this year, so today is a good reward for these guys. They worked really hard. They deserve it.
"We were just a little bit tight early in a run, and as the run wore on, the car didn't start cutting much better," added Stewart. "But the thing is, the forward bite really stayed with us. That's where we were beating guys - up off the corner. There were sections of the course where we were really good. They just weren't areas where you could pass. The only place where we could pass was (turn) 11, it was just a matter of trying to get close enough to them in (turn) 10 to where you could out-brake them in (turn) 11."
Stewart did a lot of passing after the final restart of the race, advancing himself from 12th to second over the course of 23 laps. Various teams' pit strategies, whether through fuel mileage or opting to take two tires or four, jumbled the leaderboard greatly, forcing drivers with strong cars like Stewart to fight toward the front in the waning laps.
"There were a lot of damn 'Indy car drivers' out here today and all they wanted to do was block," said Stewart. "There weren't any of them that wanted to race you clean. If they couldn't race you in a corner, they'd just assume block in you in the corner."
Stewart overcame just about all of that, coming up short to race victor Ricky Rudd. This was Rudd's first win of 2002 as well as the 23rd of his career. Following him and Stewart to line were Terry Labonte, Kurt Busch and Jeff Green.
The Winston Cup Series takes a weekend off before heading to Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway for the July 6 Pepsi 400. Live coverage by FOX begins at 7:30 p.m. EDT.