Stewart snags third at Darlington

Stewart-Haas Racing

Office Depot/Mobil 1 Driver Equals Career-Best Darlington Finish

Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Tony Stewart overcame an ill-handling racecar, a broken clutch and a near-empty fuel cell to finish third in the Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Saturday night at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

The third-place effort equaled Stewart’s best career Sprint Cup finish at the venerable 1.366-mile oval, as the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) finished third in the 2009 Southern 500.

“I broke the clutch with about 85 (laps) to go there,” said Stewart, who now has 11 top-10 finishes in 20 career Sprint Cup starts at Darlington. “Our guys did an awesome job of getting us out of the pits. It didn’t affect us on restarts. It just affected us on the pit stops. So once we got through with that last stop, we were fine.”

The last pit stop came on lap 301 while under caution when Stewart topped off with fuel. Crew chief Steve Addington knew that the balky clutch the team attempted to repair two laps earlier would not serve them well if they had to pit again. Going the rest of the race distance on fuel with no more pit stops was the team’s only hope of securing a strong finish, for the extended pit stop on lap 298 – when the team changed four tires, added fuel and inspected the transmission before pushing Stewart off pit road – dropped Stewart to 16th.

“We just got better as the night went on,” said Stewart, who rocketed up from eighth to fifth after a restart on lap 312. “We weren’t good enough to win the race, but track position was so important. The biggest thing was to get the track position when we could and just try to save the tires. I’m really proud of Steve Addington and all these guy on this Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy. They did an awesome job tonight.”

While Stewart may have felt he wasn’t good enough to win the race, he and the No. 14 team at least put themselves in position to win the race. Stewart lined up second next to eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson on the last restart as part of the green-white-checkered finish, which extended the race to 368 laps, one lap past its scheduled distance.

“The fuel pressure light was blinking when we got the one-to-go signal,” Stewart explained. “So, I had to go down to the apron. It caught on the backstretch, but then we got past the center of (turns) three and four and the pressure was down to 20 pounds again. It laid down all the way down the frontstretch and we lost second because of it. Still, pretty happy to come out of here with a third tonight.”

Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 WIX Filters Chevrolet for SHR, finished 23rd.

SHR driver Danica Patrick finished 31st in just her second career Sprint Cup race. Patrick drives the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing via a collaborative agreement with SHR. Her next race as part of her 10-race Sprint Cup schedule for 2012 is the Coca-Cola 600 May 27 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.

“I’m ecstatic with the results,” said Stewart of Patrick’s performance. “She ran good lap times tonight. There was a period of the race where she said her balance was at her best, she was within a 10th (of a second) of the leaders at that point in the race. Really, really proud of her. This is a hard place to learn. First time I came here, about the fourth time I crashed, I finally was glad they couldn’t fix it because I’d had enough for the night. I’m pretty proud as a car owner of what she did.”

Johnson’s Southern 500 win marked his 56th career Sprint Cup victory and his third at Darlington. It also brought Hendrick Motorsports its milestone 200th Sprint Cup win.

“Really proud of Rick Hendrick and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. They really deserve this 200th,” said Stewart from pit road as Johnson did burnouts on the frontstretch.

Denny Hamlin finished .781 of a second behind Johnson in the runner-up spot, while Stewart, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., rounded out the top-five. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano comprised the remainder of the top-10.

There were eight caution periods for 38 laps, with seven drivers failing to finish.

With round 11 of 36 complete, Stewart leads the SHR contingent in the championship point standings. He is seventh with 369 points, 42 behind series leader Greg Biffle. Newman is 14th with 307 points, 104 out of first.

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Tags chevrolet, stewart, stewart-haas