Big Point Day for Stewart at Atlanta Ninth-Place Finish on Attrition-Filled Day Yields 101 Points Toward Championship HAMPTON, Ga., (Oct. 31, 2004) - Tony Stewart's ninth-place finish in Sunday's Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series...
Big Point Day for Stewart at Atlanta
Ninth-Place Finish on Attrition-Filled Day Yields 101 Points Toward Championship
HAMPTON, Ga., (Oct. 31, 2004) - Tony Stewart's ninth-place finish in Sunday's Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was far from satisfying, but on a day that saw seven of the top-10 title contenders falter, it did prove rewarding.
Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet was a handful from the onset of the 325-lap race, but he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli kept working to make it better. Almost three-and-a-half hours later when the checkered flag dropped, they had succeeded enough to earn their 17th top-10 finish of the season.
"We still need to be better than what we are," said Stewart, who now has seven straight top-10 Atlanta finishes dating back to November 2001. "It wasn't a bad run, but it still wasn't as good as this Home Depot team is used to running here."
Nonetheless, the high attrition rate of Stewart's top-10 counterparts made Sunday's race more than worthwhile.
Series point leader Kurt Busch came into Atlanta with a 96-point lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., but left with only a 59-point margin. Busch's engine grenaded after just 51 laps, relegating him to a 42nd place finish. He held on to the point lead only because those behind him suffered serious misfortunes of their own.
Earnhardt crashed while racing Carl Edwards for second 13 laps from the finish. With severe damage to the front of his race car, he finished 33rd.
And what of third-place Jeff Gordon? He broke a rear end gear following a pit stop on lap 178, and despite returning to the race track after making repairs, he finished 34th.
Other championship challengers who faced challenges of their own were Ryan Newman (17th place finish after pitting for a wheel vibration), Jeremy Mayfield (26th place finish after a cut tire forced an unscheduled pit stop), Elliott Sadler (36th place finish after a run-in with Joe Nemechek on pit road broke the car's steering and transmission) and finally Matt Kenseth (41st place finish after suffering a blown engine).
"It was a good point day, for sure," said Stewart, who maintained his sixth-place point standing but picked up 101 points on the leader while putting some distance between himself and those behind him. "It's easy to get discouraged when you've been off like we've been. But the guys kept me pumped up today telling me what was going on."
Enjoying the best point days were the first- and second-place finishers - Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin.
Johnson's victory was an emotional one as the Hendrick Motorsports driver scored his third straight win, his seventh of the season and the 13th of his career. But it wasn't the numbers that made Johnson's win memorable. It was its timing, as it came on the first race weekend following the death of 10 people aboard a Hendrick Motorsports plane that crashed en route to last Sunday's race at Martinsville (Va.).
"I'm glad somebody from Hendrick could win this race," said Stewart. "Mark Martin is my hero. I wish Mark could've gotten it, but if Mark couldn't get the win, I wanted somebody from Hendrick to get it. It's a good way to remember our 10 friends that we lost a week ago."
Martin was in command for much of the race. He led four times for 227 laps - the most of any driver - before a late caution foiled his shot at victory. A decision to stay on the race track and maintain track position backfired as everyone else on the lead lap headed to pit road for tires. Martin lost the lead soon after the lap 305 restart, but battled back to finish in the runner-up slot.
Edwards came home in third to post the best finish of his 10-race career, while Nemechek and Kasey Kahne rounded-out the top-five. Comprising the remainder of the top-10 were Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Stewart and Greg Biffle.
With only three races remaining, the top-10 point standings heading into the Nov. 7 Checker Auto Parts 500k at Phoenix International Raceway are:
Live coverage of the Checker Auto Parts 500k at Phoenix International Raceway begins at 3 p.m. EST on NBC.