HAMPTON, Ga., (March 10, 2002) - Before Sunday's running of the MBNA America 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart would've considered the 1.54-mile oval to be his Achilles Heel. In his six previous starts at Atlanta, Stewart recorded three...
HAMPTON, Ga., (March 10, 2002) - Before Sunday's running of the MBNA America 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart would've considered the 1.54-mile oval to be his Achilles Heel. In his six previous starts at Atlanta, Stewart recorded three straight DNFs (Did Not Finish) and only one top-10.
But after a dominating performance on Sunday that saw Stewart lead 143 of the 325 laps - the most of any driver - as he drove to his 13th career NASCAR Winston Cup Series victory, few would believe that Stewart has any problems at Atlanta.
When asked from victory lane about his Atlanta tribulations, Stewart remarked, "Finally, this win's been a long time coming."
While it may have been a long time coming, the foundation for Stewart's most recent success began taking shape last fall, when The Home Depot Racing Team tested its #20 Pontiac Grand Prix at Atlanta before the penultimate race on the Winston Cup schedule.
"The biggest key was last fall when we came here and tested," said Stewart. "When we did that, we didn't do any qualifying runs. We worked strictly on race runs. And when we started the race here last fall, we ran really well. We just had a miscommunication on one of the changes on the last pit stop and it backed us up there at the finish and we wound up ninth.
"When we unloaded for this weekend's race, we basically just started our first practice session with same thing we finished up here with in the fall. We just kept refining what we already had, and really got the car to where we needed it to be at the start of the race. It wasn't fast at the time, but we thought that was where we needed to be in order to be good late in the race."
Good late in the race. Good early in the race. Good in the middle of the race. That seemed to best sum up Stewart's overall performance on Sunday.
He started in ninth position, and after dropping back to 11th on the first lap, Stewart began his charge to the front. By lap 18 he was fifth, and after passing Kevin Harvick, Bill Elliott, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch in succession over the next 21 laps, Stewart took the lead.
It would become a familiar position for Stewart as the 325-lap event wore on, thanks in large part to the work of his crew.
With the aerodynamic deficiencies of the Pontiac evident when caught in traffic, it was crucial for Stewart to lead. That way, Stewart could race in clean, undisturbed air with a Home Depot Pontiac that was true, predictable and fast. Quick pit work would ensure that Stewart could do just that, and the crew didn't disappoint.
After the first round of green flag pit stops on lap 56 where The Home Depot over-the-wall crew performed a 15.30-second pit stop, Stewart was able to open up a six-second lead over his nearest pursuer Busch.
The pit stops would only get faster, and while Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Ward Burton would all mount charges on Stewart's supremacy, none had what it took to usurp the lead when it mattered.
As the checkered flag fell on Stewart's first win in a 500-mile race, Earnhardt Jr. was .376-seconds behind. Rookie Jimmie Johnson followed in third, while Kenseth and Ricky Craven crossed the stripe fourth and fifth, respectively.
The dominating win propelled Stewart from 11th to fifth in points, reenergizing the championship aspirations of the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team.
"I'm real excited about our point situation," said Stewart. "I'm looking at it from the prospective of top-fives. We've been in the top-five for the past three weeks, so that right there makes me extremely excited about the possibility of what might lay ahead of us.
"We've just got to keep our nose to the ground and keep pushing. We're still 100 points out of the lead right now and that's a pretty good margin to overcome. We've just got to go out and do what we've been doing the past three weeks. If we can be consistent and be in the top-five week-in and week-out, we're going to keep knocking those points down. Hopefully we'll get there before the end of the year."
The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the March 17 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EST.