Charlotte: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart Best in Class in Coke 600. CONCORD, N.C., (May 26, 2002) - In NASCAR 2002, being the best Pontiac in a field full of Fords, Dodges and Chevrolets is like being the best moped in a race full of motorcycles - you may be best in class but...

Stewart Best in Class in Coke 600.

CONCORD, N.C., (May 26, 2002) - In NASCAR 2002, being the best Pontiac in a field full of Fords, Dodges and Chevrolets is like being the best moped in a race full of motorcycles - you may be best in class but you're still getting beat.

Just ask Tony Stewart.

Stewart wheeled his #20 Home Depot Pontiac to a solid sixth-place run in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at the race track formerly known as Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was the highest finishing Pontiac, and his seventh top-10 finish of the season bumped him up one spot in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings to seventh - 231 markers behind series leader Sterling Marlin.

But the positives end there.

To put it simply, the Coca-Cola 600 was as frustrating a race as The Home Depot Team has endured all year. The simple reason - downforce, or rather, a lack thereof, with their seven-year old Pontiac bodystyle.

>From the time the green flag dropped at approximately 5:30 p.m. EDT, Stewart's ride was a handful. It went from being slightly tight to slightly loose to extremely loose in just the first 60 laps of the 400-lap affair. Said Stewart on lap 62, "We need a caution now to fix this thing or else we're going to be the caution!"

Thankfully for Stewart his wish was granted, but only at the expense of Kevin Lepage, who smacked the wall on lap 69 to bring out the needed yellow.

Stewart came to pit road on the following lap and crew chief Greg Zipadelli went to work, making the first of what would be many chassis adjustments to the #20 Home Depot Pontiac. Lowering the track bar one round and removing a spring rubber from the right rear wheel were just the tip of the iceberg.

As the laps ticked off, more pit stops were made, and still, Stewart remained loose. Finally on lap 299 during a round of green flag pit stops, Zipadelli made the decision to tighten the car up significantly. That way, instead of having to deal with a tight race car that would go loose, Stewart would only have to deal with a tight race car.

But that plan didn't work either. The #20 machine plowed through the corners - too tight for Stewart to cut the wheel when he wanted, the way he wanted.

Efforts to loosen the car up as the race drew to a close backfired as well, with the car becoming too loose. It was as if the team was trying to balance itself on the edge of a razor blade, with the needed equilibrium always out of reach.

"We went from one side of the fence to other side of the fence," said Zipadelli in the garage area after the race. "It seemed we fought loose at the start and then we were too tight at the end. Once we got the chassis tightened up, we were too aero tight. Then we tried to free the chassis up a little, but got too loose whenever people got behind us. It's frustrating."

"There wasn't a Pontiac out there that could run nose to tail with another car lap after lap," added Stewart. "I saw Chevys and Fords and Dodges do that all day long, though. I've been with Pontiac since I started racing Busch in '96 and I love 'em, but Pontiac doesn't have a car right now that can compete with the Fords and the Chevys and Dodges. The downforce just isn't there."

Having no problem with downforce was Ford's Mark Martin, who ended a 73-race winless streak by winning the Coca-Cola 600 for his 33rd career Winston Cup victory. Martin's Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth was second, Ricky Craven was third and Ricky Rudd was fourth -- giving Ford a sweep of the top-four positions. Rounding out the top-five was Chevrolet's Jeff Gordon.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the June 2 MBNA Platinum 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. Live coverage by FX begins at 1 p.m. EDT.

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Sterling Marlin , Mark Martin