Atlanta Home Depot Racing Atlanta race report

HAMPTON, Ga., (March 11, 2001) - You can't blame Tony Stewart if he doesn't like racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After all, the track doesn't seem to like him very much. Accidents in his two trips to the 1.54-mile oval last year combined with...

HAMPTON, Ga., (March 11, 2001) - You can't blame Tony Stewart if he doesn't like racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After all, the track doesn't seem to like him very much.

Accidents in his two trips to the 1.54-mile oval last year combined with a 27th place finish in Sunday's Cracker Barrel 500 have made Atlanta the Achilles heel of The Home Depot Racing Team. In fact, of all the tracks that the NASCAR Winston Cup Series visits, Atlanta remains the only track where Stewart has not yet recorded a top-10 finish.

The 27th place effort capped a frustrating weekend all around, as Stewart qualified The Home Depot Pontiac 35th in the 43-car field. "I was way loose on entry and through the center (of the corner)," said Stewart about his qualifying lap. "I was loose all the way around, really. I never even got a chance to get all the way on the gas."

Stewart's problems in qualifying continued through Saturday's practice session, as crew chief Greg Zipadelli and Stewart wrangled to find a cure for the #20 machine's handling woes.

Their collective effort seemed to bear fruit on race day, as Stewart slowly picked his way through the field. He climbed all the way to 14th just before his fourth pit stop of the day on lap 144. But the stop was slowed when a lugnut fell off the right front wheel during the tire change. The extra time in the pits dropped Stewart to 23rd in the running order. Soon after his return to the race track, Stewart was lapped by race leader Jeff Gordon on lap 154.

Despite his best efforts, Stewart was unable to regain the lost lap during frequent runs to the caution flag. While The Home Depot Pontiac may have been a top-10 contender, the best finish Stewart could hope for was something in the high-teens.

Unfortunately, any hope Stewart and Co. had of such a finish was dashed on lap 297 when the #20 machine charged on to pit road for an unscheduled pit stop. Stewart radioed that he had a cut left front tire, so a change of left side rubber was made.

While crew members investigated the left front tire, Stewart complained of a continued vibration in the car. Moments later, the right front tire let go on the backstretch, shredding itself to pieces.

Another trip to the pits was made, this time with the nose of The Home Depot Pontiac dragging the ground. Right side tires were swapped out and a quick once-over for damage was made. Everything checked out okay, and Stewart returned to the track.

But more headaches would be in order for the orange and white Joe Gibbs Racing crew, as on lap 310 Stewart radioed that his engine was beginning to sour. Fifteen laps shy of the finish, Stewart did all he could to baby the engine home to the checkered flag. It worked, but the pace that Stewart was able to keep was substantially less that that of his pursuers. Instead of finishing 12th - the position that Stewart held prior to his engine problems - Stewart crossed the stripe in 27th. He now stands 14th in points.

At the other end of the racing spectrum was rookie Kevin Harvick. The 25-year-old NASCAR Busch Series driver who was tabbed by car owner Richard Childress three weeks ago to fill the seat of the late Dale Earnhardt, scored his first career Winston Cup victory in the Cracker Barrel 500. It was an impressive and emotional win, as Harvick held off a strong challenge by Gordon to take the win by just .006 seconds. It reminded many of the close win Earnhardt scored against Bobby Labonte at this race last year.

"All I've got to say is that this win is for Dale," said Harvick. "This was by far the most difficult thing I could do without getting too emotional. I think this race ended up pretty much the way it did last year at this time - same guy on top. This is for Dale Earnhardt and his whole team. They stood behind me and I gave it all I had for them."

Harvick's win was a record-breaker, as he became the first driver to win a Winston Cup race with less than 10 career starts since the Rookie of the Year program was established in 1958. Ron Bouchard, who won in 1981 in his 11th career start, held the previous record.

Harvick became just the fifth driver to his in his third career Winston Cup start. He joins Bob Flock (1949), Johnny Mantz (1950), Bill Norton (1951) and Dan Gurney (1963). His victory is the earliest in a career in the modern era (1972 to present), eclipsing Mark Donahue's win in his fifth race, set at Riverside (Calif.) in January 1973.

As mentioned earlier, Gordon was second, followed by Jerry Nadeau in third, Dale Jarrett in fourth and Terry Labonte in fifth.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on March 18 at 1 p.m. EST. FOX Sports will provide live coverage.

- Mike Arning

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Bobby Labonte , Terry Labonte , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Jerry Nadeau , Dan Gurney