Reversal of Fortune for Stewart in Atlanta Leads Four Times for 127 Laps in First Half of Race, Falls to Seventh in Second Half HAMPTON, Ga., (March 14, 2004) - From the drop of the green flag to just past the halfway point of Sunday's Golden...
Reversal of Fortune for Stewart in Atlanta
Leads Four Times for 127 Laps in First Half of Race, Falls to Seventh in Second Half
HAMPTON, Ga., (March 14, 2004) - From the drop of the green flag to just past the halfway point of Sunday's Golden Corral 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart was in a class all his own. He led four times for a race-high 127 laps, giving Stewart 10 valuable bonus points in the chase for the championship.
Stewart - the 2002 series champion - charged from 19th to first before lap 50, taking the point from Jeff Gordon on lap 47. He paced the field for the next 12 laps before a round of green flag pit stops on lap 58 temporarily gave the lead to Robby Gordon. Stewart reaffirmed his spot at the front, leading the next 85 laps before a spirited battle with Greg Biffle allowed Biffle to lead laps 145-146. Stewart re-took the lead on lap 147, holding the top spot before the surprisingly strong Casey Mears passed Stewart on lap 178. The Home Depot driver didn't give up without a fight, however, as he passed Mears back for the lead a lap later. Mears dogged Stewart for the next four laps, finally getting by on lap 177.
It was there where Stewart's day began to unfold. Already complaining about his car becoming too tight - evident by his healthy lead evaporating as the race closed in on the halfway mark - Stewart was involved in a minor incident that slightly damaged the left front fender of the #20 machine.
Caught on the outside of a three-wide challenge for the lead in turns three and four that involved Ryan Newman on the inside and Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the middle, Earnhardt moved up into Stewart as Newman moved up the track toward Earnhardt. Earnhardt's right rear fender touched Stewart's left front fender, bending the sheet metal just enough to affect the car's aerodynamics. The incident gave Mears - running fourth at the time - the opening he needed to take the lead.
"We were coming around turns three and four and I got up under Tony," said Earnhardt. "I was just trying to fall in line and be one of those guys to pass him. We came off (turn) four and the '12' (Newman) got up underneath me and made it three-wide. Giving the '12' as much room as I did, I squeezed Tony up a little bit and I don't think he was ready to give up the position. I didn't know I hit him. I went off into the corner and didn't know who hit who. But then I knew I'd probably damaged his fender and I felt bad about that because it is so precious here to have a good left front fender on the car. He was not happy about his car at that point. He was frustrated. I hated to get into him."
>From there, Stewart's once dominant drive was no more. He fell to fifth in one lap as his tight handling condition worsened, while those who had been chasing Stewart simply became better.
Mears continued to show his strength until being sidelined with engine problems on lap 302. Earnhardt, Newman and rookie Kasey Kahne soon emerged as the potential victors, as the trio traded the lead amongst themselves during the latter half of the 325-lap race. Stewart, meanwhile, was left to battle with Biffle for seventh.
When the checkered flag waved, Stewart won the battle for seventh. Winning the race was Earnhardt, who scored his 11th career victory. Rounding out the top-five were Jeremy Mayfield, Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Newman.
"We just got tight for some reason," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli after the race. "Either we put a set of tires on or the race track changed a lot - something changed - because we went from running really good to having an average place car, and we just got tighter as the day went. I think we got a little better at the end by looking at our lap times, but it still didn't drive like Tony wanted it to.
"It's just frustrating. You run so good at the beginning, and sometimes that's as good as your car is going to be all day while everyone else makes their cars better. It seemed like when we needed a caution, we didn't get them. Then, in the middle part of the race, when the guys who needed the cautions to catch up to us - they got a couple of them right in a row. That probably helped them more than it helped us at the end. But I guess that's the way the ball bounces."
While the seventh-place effort was not the result Stewart and Co. were looking for, it maintained their second-place standing in the championship chase. Their third top-10 finish in the season's first four races actually allowed Stewart to gain six points on championship leader Matt Kenseth.
"For two weeks in a row we've had a really good race car," added Zipadelli. "The race track cooled off quite a bit from when we started to when we ended. Cloud cover came over late in the day and the outside temp went down and the race track surface temperature went down quite a bit. That, and the more rubber that's put down, people blow some motors, and eventually the track gives up some grip. Wherever you're lacking early in the race, it just kind of magnifies it later on. But we still came out of here with seventh and we got a third last week in Vegas. That's nothing to be ashamed of, but I think we should've been better than what we finished here. We'll just regroup and go on to Darlington (S.C.)."
The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the March 21 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EST.