LONG POND, Pa., (July 29, 2001) - With temperatures feeling less like a sweltering summer day and more like a cool autumn afternoon at Pocono Raceway Sunday, round number 20 of the 36-race NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule presented competitors with a climate vastly different from the heat and humidity normally associated with their July stop in the Pocono Mountains.
"We knew the weather was going to be bad today - knew it was going to be overcast and cooler than yesterday," said Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart following his third-place finish in the Pennsylvania 500.
Knowing the elements they were up against, Tony Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team set out to conquer not only Mother Nature, but also the 43-car field.
Stewart began his 500-mile run in 13th, and loomed in the middle of the pack for the first 100 laps. Working hard all the way, Stewart surged past fading pole sitter Todd Bodine on lap 91 and worked the #22 Dodge of Ward Burton out of the top-10 on lap 113.
When mingling in the top-10 became old, Stewart set his sights for the top-five. Knowing he had stronger lap times than the leaders, Stewart began to run down the eighth, seventh and sixth-place cars. At lap 127, Stewart began stalking the cars of Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and Bill Elliott, while Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte was holding strong at fifth, within striking distance of the lead.
Caution went out on lap 157, courtesy of an accident by the #88 car of Dale Jarrett, which sent the leaders onto pit road. Stewart crew chief Greg Zipadelli opted to go for a splash of fuel and no tires, which proved to be the right move. The #20 machine emerged fourth at the restart trailing the cars of Johnny Benson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Elliott.
"It didn't really matter to me when the cautions came out," said Stewart. "It was tight for us on fuel just like it was for everyone else. On both of those yellows they told me to conserve as much fuel as possible. That was the only thing about those two cautions that was anything different than any other point in the race - just a matter of trying to save fuel. The rest was business as usual."
By lap 190, Stewart was fixed at third and watched as teammate Labonte caught Earnhardt Jr. for the lead and, eventually, the checkered flag.
"We got too tight at the end. We still didn't free it up enough," said Stewart. "We just kept working all day. I'm starting to be a little more patient inside the car, and I don't get frustrated anymore the second the race car doesn't drive right. Greg and I are probably communicating more on the radio than we ever have, as far as changes. He's letting me kind of pick changes that I want to do now. I'm not saying he's not doing it, he's just taught me enough that I feel like I have the confidence of knowing if we have one problem and there's three different solutions, which one's the one that I really think is going to make the car better instead of putting it all in Greg's hands and having him have to guess to pick which one's going to be right. I think our communication is getting better. We just keep working together making it better."
Finishing in the top-five for the second consecutive week, Stewart keeps his grip on fourth-place in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings. Stewart now trails leader Jeff Gordon by 261 points.
As mentioned earlier, it was Labonte who won the Pennsylvania 500. It was the first win of the 2001 season for the defending Winston Cup champion, and the 30th Winston Cup victory for Joe Gibbs Racing. Earnhardt Jr. was second, followed by Stewart. Fourth-place went to Elliott, and rounding out the top-five was Benson.
The exciting racing added to the excitement in the chase for the Winston Cup point championship. Jarrett's lap 157 crash and subsequent DNF (Did Not Finish) earned him a 41st place finish. That dropped him from a tie with Gordon for the point lead to third in the standings, 107 points arrears. Gordon now stands alone atop the point standings, with a 45-point margin between himself and second-place Ricky Rudd.
The next race on the Winston Cup schedule is the Brickyard 400 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Aug. 5 at 2:30 p.m. EDT. NBC will provide live coverage of the event.