Talladega's "big wreck" consumes Stewart.

TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 21, 2002) - Right through lap 163 of the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, the racing had been clean. Only one caution flag had been displayed, and that was for debris on lap 116. Many were thinking, and hoping, that this year's spring Talladega race would be just like last year's race - accident free.

No such luck.

The Big One came on lap 164, when the lapped car of Mike Wallace moved high coming off turn two directly into the left side of Tony Stewart's Home Depot Pontiac, pinching Stewart against the outside retaining wall. Wallace's Chevrolet then spun in front of Stewart, triggering a chain-reaction accident that collected 22 other race cars.

"I was trying to go into a hole.  I kind of checked up a little bit," said
Wallace.  "I don't really know what happened."

What happened was that both the left front and the right front corners of Stewart's #20 machine were heavily damaged. A series of pit stops were made beginning on lap 165 to make repairs and get Stewart back onto the race track without losing a lap. With so many other cars too wounded to return, simply finishing the race could mean the difference between finishing 22nd and 42nd.

Crew members took tin snips and made the front wheel wells larger, cutting away any sheet metal that was rubbing on the tires. The crumpled hood was beat back down with a rubber mallet, and then duct taped to the fenders to keep it down for when Stewart returned to the track. And finally, the front wheel alignment was checked and then adjusted before Stewart returned to the track for good.

But on lap 180, after all that work had been completed, Stewart checked his gauges and noticed that his oil pressure was dropping. Back to pit road Stewart came, where it was discovered that the oil line had been severed in the accident. With only eight laps left in the 188-lap contest, there wasn't enough time to replace the oil line. Before the race finished, The Home Depot Pontiac was being pushed back to the garage area with a dejected Stewart still sitting in the cockpit.

As Dale Earnhardt Jr., took the win, a driver that Stewart had worked with all day in the draft, Stewart was heading to the airport en route to a Monday morning test session at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

When the race results were posted, Stewart was credited with a 29th place finish.

"It's a tough day for us," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli, whose 35th birthday was clouded with disappointment. "It seems like every time we make one step forward in the points and get some momentum going, something dumb happens and here we are - third DNF out of nine races this year. That's not going to win you a championship and it's not our fault. But, you've just got to go with it."

Stewart dropped three spots in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings, from fifth to eighth. He is now 231 points arrears current point leader Sterling Marlin, who survived The Big Wreck and finished the Aaron's 499 in fifth.

Other drivers finishing well were Michael Waltrip who scored second and jumped five positions in points, from 23rd to 19th; Bristol (Tenn.) winner Kurt Busch who finished third and rose two spots in points to fourth; and Jeff Gordon, who notched fourth-place and moved up one spot in points to seventh.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the April 28 NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway in Fontana. Live coverage by FOX begins at 3 p.m. EDT.

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