RADIO & ELECTRICAL GREMLINS THWART STEWART AT BRISTOL With only one finish outside the top-25 this season and only five finishes outside the top-10 leading into Saturday night's Sharpie 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor...
RADIO & ELECTRICAL GREMLINS THWART STEWART AT BRISTOL
With only one finish outside the top-25 this season and only five finishes outside the top-10 leading into Saturday night's Sharpie 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, one could surmise that Tony Stewart was due for a bad race.
The Sharpie 500 was it, as Stewart finished a lowly 33rd, 11 laps down to race winner Kyle Busch.
The initial culprit was a rare radio communication problem, where Stewart couldn't hear either crew chief Darian Grubb or spotter Bob Jeffrey and no one could hear Stewart. The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) had to go "old school" to convey the handling characteristics of his racecar. If he put his hand on the A-pillar, the car was tight. If he put his hand on the door, the car was loose. How tight or how loose was Grubb's best guess.
As the team tried to change out radios, harnesses and the assorted wiring whenever the caution flag waved, the seconds spent on pit road burned precious time on the track. Stewart restarted in 42nd on lap 15 after the first attempt to fix the radio, which was drawn out when the window net fell down just prior to the restart. Stewart was forced to return to the pits so that the window net could be hooked back up. Stewart lost a lap in the process, but got it back when he stayed out on the racetrack when another caution period began on lap 44.
But because Stewart couldn't convey exactly what needed to be done to make the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy better, he quickly fell into the clutches of race-leader Mark Martin, who put him back down a lap on lap 102.
In another attempt to fix the radio during a caution period on lap 137, Stewart was caught speeding off pit road. NASCAR penalized him a lap for the infraction, and just like that, Stewart was two laps down in 38th.
Finally, by lap 257, after a series of pit stops to cure the team's radio issues, a familiar voice was heard in each crew member's headset: "Tight in the center-third," said Stewart.
Halfway through the 500-lap race, radio communication between driver and team was reestablished. Grubb quickly called for a track bar adjustment while the over-the-wall crew changed four tires and filled the fuel cell.
"We've been driving blind for 260 laps," Stewart said. "We've overcome worse than this."
And so with a little less than half of the Sharpie 500 left to run, Stewart set out to earn the best finish possible. Restarting in 33rd when racing resumed on lap 263, the No. 14 machine was the first car two laps down.
By lap 360, Stewart had climbed to 31st. He was still two laps down, along with Bobby Labonte, Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler. But after a round of pit stops during a caution on lap 357, Grubb radioed to Stewart that he could go the distance on fuel.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Stewart could stay out, get his laps back, and maybe, just maybe, salvage a decent finish.
But those plans were thwarted too. Not by radio malfunctions, but by an electrical problem that cut the engine off whenever it ran at a low rpm, specifically during caution periods. Stewart's car stalled on the frontstretch on lap 441 and again in the pits on lap 457. Nine more laps were lost, leaving Stewart on a lap of his own in 33rd when the checkered flag mercifully dropped.
To a certain degree, the Sharpie 500 was a throwaway race for Stewart. The two-time Sprint Cup champion clinched a spot in the in the 12-driver Chase for the Championship by simply starting last weekend's race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. His effort at Bristol, no matter how bad, would have no bearing on his Chase eligibility.
But a win would've earned Stewart 10 more bonus points to start the Chase, giving him a total of 40, as Stewart came into Bristol with 30 bonus points thanks to victories at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in June, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in July and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in August. Obviously, it wasn't to be.
Busch, however, did scoop up those bonus points, putting him 10 points ahead of Stewart when the 10-race Chase begins Sept. 20 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, as Busch has four wins to Stewart's three. But, Busch is also 34 points outside the top-12 with only two races remaining before the Chase field is set. If he's not in the Chase, his bonus points are worthless.
"Well, I'm telling you, this was like an episode of the Twilight Zone," said Stewart after completing his 22nd career Sprint Cup race at Bristol. "How it started was I switched my frequency on my radio over to Ryan's (Newman) channel to wish them luck, which is not uncommon, but I couldn't go back to my channel. Every channel I went to, it was still them. And then I switched to the second radio, which is our backup radio, and I hadn't even touched it, and it was them. So the first 200 laps, I'm listening to Ryan and his spotter. That's what I was hearing on the radio. The reason I stayed on that and didn't unplug the radio was because at least if a caution came out I could hear his spotter calling the caution out.
"Then we had a short in the wiring harness to the ignition boxes and we thought it was the safety kill switch because the light came on and I guess it just shows if there is a short in the system somewhere. It was real sporadic and then all of a sudden it came on. Whatever it was wiggled itself loose enough that they finally just got one of the junctions in the ignition box back together.
"Nobody gave up or was yelling and screaming. I thought everybody handled it well. That's the first fire drill we've had to go through during a race and I thought, considering, that everybody did a good job. I couldn't do anything until I got back to the pit box and they did an awesome job of tearing through it and trying to figure out what it was."
Newman, driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation/U.S. Army Chevrolet Impala SS for SHR, finished sixth to score his tenth top-10 finish of the season and his second consecutive top-10 at Bristol.
Stewart remains atop the championship point standings, but his lead shrank to 220 points over second-place Jimmie Johnson. Newman, meanwhile, gained two spots to climb to seventh in the standings. He's now 569 points out of first and 84 points ahead of 13th-place Busch.
Busch did all he could to crack the top-12 by leading the final 68 laps of the Sharpie 500 and beating Martin across the stripe by .098 of a second. It was Busch's 16th career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his third at Bristol.
Finishing third behind Martin was Australian Marcos Ambrose, while Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five. Newman, Kurt Busch, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Matt Kenseth comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 11 caution periods for 76 laps, with seven drivers failing to finish the 266.5-mile race.
The Sprint Cup Series takes a rare weekend off before returning to action Sept. 6 with the Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The race begins at 7:30 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with its pre-race show at 7 p.m.