STEWART BREAKS OUT IN JOLIET Home Depot Driver Earns First Win of 2007 at Chicagoland Just as Jake and Elwood Blues -- the Blues Brothers -- broke out of Joliet, Ill., in the summer of 1979, Tony Stewart broke out to score his first win of...
STEWART BREAKS OUT IN JOLIET
Home Depot Driver Earns First Win of 2007 at Chicagoland
Just as Jake and Elwood Blues -- the Blues Brothers -- broke out of Joliet, Ill., in the summer of 1979, Tony Stewart broke out to score his first win of the 2007 season and the 30th of his career by winning Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.
The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) earned his second career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series victory at Chicagoland in convincing fashion, as he led six times for a race-high 106 laps, including the final 36.
"I'm actually more overjoyed than anything," said Stewart, who visited Chicagoland's victory lane in 2004. "This should have been the fourth or fifth time we've been sitting in this (media center) room with you guys after the race is over. But whether it's been fuel mileage or just bad luck, we just haven't been able to close one off."
Stewart sealed the deal with the help of the Greg Zipadelli-led Home Depot Racing Team. Pit strategy and quick pit work augmented Stewart's strong drive, and without them, a win near the Windy City might not have been possible.
"Today was a very textbook day for us," Stewart said. "We started 19th and we worked our way into the top-10 and then we got a caution. New tires weren't as important as having track position, so we just needed that at the beginning of the race. We were a little too tight. Zippy made a change and the car really was good the rest of the day. There were just little things that he did to fine-tune it."
On the pit stops where Zipadelli applied the subtle changes to the No. 20 team's chassis, the over-the-wall crew performed their pit stops so efficiently that they gained Stewart positions on the race track.
During the first stop while under green on lap 50, Stewart entered the pits in 12th but came out in ninth. And when the caution flag waved eight laps later and the leaders came to pit road for tires and fuel, Zipadelli astutely called for a gas-only pit stop, which vaulted Stewart from ninth to fourth. From there, Stewart used the power from his Chevy V-8 to pass Ryan Newman for third on lap 65 and Reed Sorenson for second on lap 90. Only Kevin Harvick remained in front of the No. 20 Home Depot machine.
"Once we got in the top-three, I felt like in my head that we had a shot at winning the race," Stewart said. "I knew that when Kevin (Harvick) was in front of us and we started running him down. And Jimmie (Johnson) and some of the other guys that had been leading the race and were in the top-two or three -- they really weren't making time on us, and we were on older tires than they were. It makes you feel good as a driver when you see guys aren't running you down from behind while you're running the guy down in front of you.
"The difference today was pit stops. The guys had awesome pit stops and got us track position when we needed it -- especially that last stop."
It was actually the second to last stop on lap 203, where Stewart came into the pits in the lead and left with the lead. No changes were made to the car other than adding four new tires and filling the tank with fuel. But with 64 laps still remaining, Stewart could not go the distance without another stop for just a few gallons of fuel.
He wasn't alone, as no one could make it to the end. All would have to stop for gas, but when that stop came, a decision had to be made. Do you take tires or just fuel? And if you take tires, do you change all four or just the right side?
That moment came for the No. 20 team when the race was under caution on lap 227, and it was then when Zipadelli called for a gas-and-go. Jeff "Gooch" Patterson lifted the 11-gallon fuel can and plugged it into the receptacle on the left rear quarterpanel while Stewart held steady in the pit box before Zipadelli ordered him to go. Off Stewart went, returning to the 1.5-mile oval with his lead intact.
Only two other teams followed the strategy employed by Zipadelli -- the No. 17 Roush Fenway team of Matt Kenseth and the No. 2 Penske Racing team of Kurt Busch. As a result, they lined up 2-3 behind Stewart, with those who took only right side tires -- a group led by Harvick -- behind them.
"Being able to stay ahead of everybody and have that clean air on restarts was key," Stewart said. "Matt (Kenseth) was really good on restarts on cooler tires. It seemed like we were a little bit too free for a short stint and a short run, but that's what we kept getting with the cautions coming out."
Despite being out front, Stewart had to work hard to hold off Kenseth, as there were three restarts in the race's last 40 laps where Kenseth bore down on Stewart's rear bumper.
"We just needed a long run," Stewart said. "Our car was a lot better after about eight or 10 laps. The short runs there really hurt us and gave Matt the opportunity to close in and cool his tires off and make a run at us. But it seemed like once we would get about six or seven laps on the tires the car would start coming into it balance-wise and we could start driving away."
Stewart did just that, crossing the finish line 1.727 seconds ahead of Kenseth. Carl Edwards followed in third, while Harvick and Mears rounded out the top-five. Busch, Jeff Burton, Newman, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer comprised the remainder of the top-10.
The victory bumped Stewart up one spot in the championship point standings. The two-time Nextel Cup champion is now sixth in points, 482 behind series leader Gordon.
Stewart's JGR teammates -- Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley -- finished 17th and 35th, respectively, in the USG Sheetrock 400. Hamlin held steady at second in points, where he's 303 markers arrears Gordon. Yeley, meanwhile, dropped two spots to fall to 19th in points.
The Nextel Cup Series takes a weekend off before heading to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the July 29 Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. The race starts at 2 p.m. EDT with live, high definition coverage provided by ESPN beginning with its pre-race show at 1 p.m.