DOVER, Del., (June 3, 2001) - Tony Stewart's seventh-place finish in the MBNA Platinum 400 wasn't dominance, but it was his fifth top-10 finish in as many starts at Dover Downs International Speedway.
As the driver who swept both Dover races last year in dominating fashion by leading 405 of 800 possible laps, Stewart returned to the one-mile oval looking to join Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and David Pearson as the only drivers who have won three straight Dover races.
But the bar that Stewart raised and set in 2000 was met by Gordon as soon as the green flag dropped for Sunday's 400-miler. Gordon led from the start, and aside from the 19 laps where he didn't pace the field, Gordon led when the checkered flag waved. Everyone else was racing for second.
Included in that pack was Stewart, who started sixth and worked his way to third before a caution on lap 58 sent everyone to pit road for the race's first round of pit stops. Quick service by The Home Depot pit crew propelled Stewart past second-place Sterling Marlin, and that's where Stewart sat when the race restarted on lap 63.
But as the laps clicked off Stewart slowly fell back, dropping to fifth by lap 120. The #20 machine was loose through the corners, especially on exit, and Stewart was struggling to keep pace.
On the second stop of the day under green on lap 150, crew chief Greg Zipadelli pulled a spring rubber out of the left rear and lowered the track bar one round. Another pit stop was made on lap 179, as was another round of chassis adjustments.
The changes seemed to help, as Stewart steadily rose to fourth on lap 186 and then to third on lap 200. Second-place was reclaimed on lap 220 when Stewart wheeled his Home Depot Pontiac to the inside of Dale Jarrett.
Nonetheless, Stewart still felt his car was too loose on the race track, as evidenced by the distance Gordon was putting between himself and Stewart.
But soon Stewart had other variables to contend with other than Gordon's quick pace.
While coming into his pit box for his fourth stop of the day on lap 268, Stewart was cut off as rookie Kevin Harvick left his stall to return to the race track. Slight contact was made, denting the left front fender of The Home Depot Pontiac. The damage was minimal, but Stewart's frustration level was high.
Another run to the second spot would settle Stewart, albeit briefly. He passed Steve Park for second on lap 289, only to begin falling back five laps later as his tires lost grip. "How many laps until we pit because I've about killed the right front (tire)!" hollered Stewart over the radio.
The answer was lap 353, but by this time the handling characteristics on The Home Depot Pontiac had gone from one end of the spectrum to the other. After having been loose for the majority of the race, Stewart found himself with a tight race car with less than 50 laps remaining. Changes that had been made to tighten the car up on previous pit stops were reversed, and Stewart returned to the track in fifth-place.
When the final caution of the day came out, Stewart headed to the pits again. His car was still too tight and he wanted it fixed - quickly. But Stewart entered the pits too hot and overshot his pit box. Before work could be done, Stewart had to put the car in reverse and back up into his stall. Another chassis adjustment was made and four fresh tires were added before Stewart returned to the race track for good.
When the race restarted on lap 367 Stewart was eighth. Thanks to the chassis work directed by Zipadelli, Stewart was able to carve his way up one spot to seventh. It wasn't the kind of finish at Dover that the team enjoyed twice last year, but it was a solid finish nonetheless.
Asked if this was the toughest day at Dover his team had ever experienced, Zipadelli remarked, "Yeah, if you want to look at where we finished. We ran better all day than where we finished, but there have been times when we've been here and haven't run as well as we finished. We just didn't do everything we needed to do today. We did a really good job through the middle part of the race, but we just seemed to give it all back at the end."
The battle may not have been won, but the effort by The Home Depot Racing Team in the MBNA Platinum 400 went a long way toward the war effort. Stewart now sits fourth in points, 158 behind current point leader Jarrett.
The Winston Cup Series returns to action June 10 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn for the Kmart 400. The race, set to begin at 1 p.m. EDT, will be telecast live on the FX network.