STAYING THE COURSE Stewart Battles Back to Extend Points Lead at Atlanta Motor Speedway Persistence paid off for Tony Stewart in Sunday night's Pep Boys Auto 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as the driver of the No....
STAYING THE COURSE
Stewart Battles Back to Extend Points Lead at Atlanta Motor Speedway
Persistence paid off for Tony Stewart in Sunday night's Pep Boys Auto 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) overcame an ill-handling racecar and a pit road miscue to finish 11th.
Stewart spent the majority of the 325-lap race seemingly on one side of the handling spectrum or the other. He rose to as high as fourth early in the race only to drop back to as low as 23rd with less than 90 laps remaining. Stewart also fought his own battle inside the cockpit, as he struggled with flu-like symptoms throughout the weekend.
After climbing to fourth from his 12th-place starting position by lap 87, Stewart's night began to shift in the opposite direction after a round of pit stops on lap 132. After a few laps under green, Stewart radioed crew chief Darian Grubb that he felt a vibration as he rolled around the track's 1.54-mile oval at speeds nearing 200 mph. After some investigating in the pits, the culprit was determined to be a tire that was out-of-balance. Confirming that the wheel itself was not loose, Stewart stayed out in an effort to keep his track position.
"At that point, there wasn't much I could do but stay out and try to hang on to position," Stewart said. "We needed a yellow to change tires, but it took some time for that to happen. I knew we didn't have a loose wheel, but there was a vibration that was making the car really unresponsive. We just had a tire balance issue that made the car a handful."
After a pit stop on lap 186, Stewart renewed his charge toward the front. But that charge was cut short again on lap 203 when Stewart had to return to the pits to tighten a lugnut left loose a lap earlier during the team's scheduled stop for service.
By lap 223, Stewart reported that his car was "dead loose" in both the entry and exit of track's corners, and that it needed to be tightened up considerably on the first opportunity presented to the team.
Stewart stayed out in an attempt not to give up significant track position by making an unscheduled green flag stop, but by lap 239 race-leader Kevin Harvick was able to get around the No. 14 to put Stewart a lap down. Another round of pit stops on lap 248 brought new tires and an air pressure adjustment in an attempt to tighten the car's handling. Racing for position to be the recipient of the next free pass, Stewart was able to get back on the lead lap following a caution on lap 270.
When the final caution flag of the night waved on lap 310, Stewart brought the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet down pit road one last time for a slight air pressure adjustment in the left-rear tire. The crew also added a piece of tape to the car's grill and topped it off with fuel for the sprint to the finish.
"There at the end, we were really on to something," Stewart said. "The car was really good for that final run and I wish the race would've been a little longer because I'm sure we could've picked up a top-10 finish. Darian (Grubb) and the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy team did an outstanding job all weekend."
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army/Haas Automation Chevrolet Impala SS for SHR, finished ninth in the Pep Boys Auto 500.
Stewart remains atop the championship point standings, and his 11th-place finish expanded his lead to 237 points over second-place Jeff Gordon. Stewart was the first driver to secure a spot in the 12-driver Chase for the Championship, as his sizeable advantage allowed him to clinch a Chase berth two races ago at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
Newman, meanwhile, dropped two spots to ninth in the standings despite posting a solid effort at Atlanta. He's now 556 points out of first and 81 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers. Only one race remains before the field is set for the final, 10-race Chase for the Championship.
The top-four drivers in points -- Stewart, Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin -- have all clinched spots in the Chase.
Kasey Kahne beat Harvick by 1.766 seconds to win the Pep Boys Auto 500. It was his 11th career Sprint Cup victory, his second of the season and his second at Atlanta.
Finishing third was Juan Pablo Montoya, while David Reutimann and Mark Martin rounded out the top-five. Hamlin, Vickers, Gordon, Newman and Greg Biffle comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were nine caution periods for 42 laps, with six drivers failing to finish.