Atlanta: Tony Stewart race report

Fifth at Atlanta brings Stewart to second in points. HAMPTON, Ga., (March 9, 2003) - Tony Stewart drove his ...

Fifth at Atlanta brings Stewart to second in points.

HAMPTON, Ga., (March 9, 2003) - Tony Stewart drove his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet to a fifth-place finish in Sunday's Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, vaulting him from fifth to second in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings.

Stewart started the 325-lap affair in eighth, and moved to fifth by just the second lap. He fluctuated between sixth and fourth until a caution came out on lap 209, where quick pit work by The Home Depot crew allowed Stewart to emerge with the lead on lap 210.

Stewart held the point for the next 13 circuits around the 1.54-mile oval before Jeff Gordon took the lead, where he paced the field for 46 laps. Stewart's #20 machine, meanwhile, became looser and looser as the race wore on. By lap 257, Stewart was back to sixth.

The Home Depot Chevrolet was most likely a sixth-place car, but when the engine in fifth-place Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet expired on lap 307, Stewart inherited fifth. But it was not without some drama.

When Johnson's engine let go, it was following a restart on lap 306. With the field tightly bunched and Stewart tucked in behind Johnson's #48 Chevrolet, Johnson's sudden lack of power while coming off turn two forced Stewart to nose into the #48's rear bumper before pulling high to avoid him. Thankfully, no damage occurred, and the thoughts of what could have happened made everyone in The Home Depot pit breathe a sigh of relief.

Oil laid down by Johnson's broken engine brought out the final caution of the afternoon on lap 308. Upon cleanup, the race restarted on lap 312, with Stewart in sixth as Elliott Sadler had managed to pass the #20 car when Stewart maneuvered around Johnson.

Stewart regained his place in the top-five, taking the spot from Sadler on lap 316. With just nine laps remaining, Stewart maintained his position to earn his third top-10 finish of the season and his fourth straight at Atlanta.

The finish brought Stewart to second in points, just 49 markers behind new point leader Matt Kenseth.

"We fought a loose car the majority of the day," said Stewart. "We could get it tightened up in certain areas, but we'd get to too tight in others, and then still be loose in some. We just fought the handling all day, but we still had a good day and the guys did a great job.

"In the first half of the race we showed signs of being as good as everybody else, but it seems like if we miss a little bit here it shows up big at the end. The guys that finished ahead of us got their cars right. Still, we had a good car. We kept working on it all day. We just could never get it 100 percent right through the corner."

Adding luster to Stewart's new point position was Bobby Labonte's win in the Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500. Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate enjoyed his sixth Atlanta win in impressive fashion, as he lead nine times for a total of 172 laps. It was Labonte's first win since his victory at Martinsville (Va.) in April of 2002 - a span of 32 races. And just as Stewart's fifth-place finish gained him some spots in the points, Labonte's win allowed him a point windfall as well. After entering Atlanta 12th in points, Labonte leaves in fifth - a gain of eight positions that puts Labonte 108 points behind leader Kenseth.

"Our teams run really well here," said Stewart. "Bobby has always run well here - even before I joined the team. It's a track we both like, and it's a great place for fans to watch racing on a mile-and-a-half track. It's probably the best one we run on all year. You can run on the bottom, you can run on the top, you can run anywhere in between. You actually get to race here."

Racing Labonte to the line in second was Gordon, who made a point move of his own, coming from 20th to eighth after notching his first top-10 finish of the year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. followed in third, with Kenseth and Stewart rounding out the top-five.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the March 16 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EST.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Elliott Sadler
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing