Chicagoland: Tony Stewart race report

JOLIET, Ill., (July 13, 2003) - Tony Stewart dominated early in Sunday's Tropicana 400 NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway, leading three times for 80 laps.  But a lap 120 incident while racing three-wide with Robby Gordon ...

JOLIET, Ill., (July 13, 2003) - Tony Stewart dominated early in Sunday's Tropicana 400 NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway, leading three times for 80 laps.  But a lap 120 incident while racing three-wide with Robby Gordon damaged the left front fender of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, dropping Stewart to 14th in the running order.  Undaunted, Stewart rallied to finish a strong second to race winner Ryan Newman upon the conclusion of the 267-lap affair, vaulting The Home Depot driver from 11th to eighth in the championship point standings.

"I think we had the fastest car today," said Stewart, who proved early in the weekend that The Home Depot Chevrolet was strong, taking the seventh pole of his Winston Cup career during Friday's qualifying session.  "We had the fastest car, and even though we didn't win, I'm very happy with the way the weekend went. 

"We came off the truck on Friday and we were the quickest car on the (practice) sheet, and it made me feel proud when we got the pole.  We were even more proud on Saturday - with big smiles on our faces - during practice, because we knew we had a good car and we were all very excited about the race.

"I think the first two stints of the race showed the tale of the tape," continued Stewart, referring to the race's first 110 laps, where he led the most laps of any driver.  "We were bad fast.  We had one change that we should've made yesterday but I didn't ask for it and I should've asked for it.  That held us back a little bit."

Stewart's run up front hit a snag on lap 120 when he was racing Gordon for fifth.  Stewart and the rest of the leaders had pitted during a caution period on lap 107.  Stewart took two tires while a handful of others stayed out.  When the race restarted on lap 113, Stewart was in sixth and quickly set his sights on the lead.  That's when he met up with Gordon, who was to the inside of Stewart when he went high to take the spot of Elliott Sadler.  The trio headed three-wide into turn one - Sadler on the inside, Gordon in the middle and Stewart on the outside - when Gordon moved ever higher into Stewart, touching the left front fender of the #20 car and sending Stewart deep into the marbles between turns one and two.

The minor contact dented Stewart's fender, making what was once a perfectly handling race car push through the corners.  Crew chief Greg Zipadelli brought Stewart to pit road during the next caution period on lap 128, where crew members quickly repaired the fender while adding four fresh Goodyears.

When the race restarted on lap 131, Stewart was 14th.  Ten laps later he cracked the top-10.  Stewart stayed within the top-10 right through the final round of pit stops while under caution on lap 209, allowing him and the majority of the leaders to go the rest of the distance on fuel.

When the race restarted on lap 212, Stewart was eighth.  He soon began moving toward the front, entering the top-five on lap 234 when rookie Jamie McMurray pitted for fuel.  Stewart then made his way past Michael Waltrip for fourth on lap 243 before setting his sights on Jimmie Johnson, who after a spirited battle, passed for third on lap 260.  Race leader Newman, meanwhile, had checked out from Stewart, with his only competition being that of two-time Chicagoland winner Kevin Harvick.  But Harvick became a victim of a fuel mileage miscalculation, as his tank went dry on lap 264.  Stewart inherited second, but with only three laps remaining and Newman a full straightaway ahead, Stewart had no shot at career win number 17.

"I'd be happier if I was in victory lane," said Stewart, "but I've still had a pretty doggone good weekend.  All in all, I'm a happy guy."

Newman's victory in the Tropicana 400 was his fourth career Winston Cup victory and his third of the season.  Stewart's second-place result was his ninth top-10 finish in 2003, and his second top-10 in the three Winston Cup races held at Chicagoland.  Johnson finished third to post his seventh top-10 of the year, while Jeff Gordon (no relation to Robby) came home fourth, allowing him to climb one spot in the championship standings to second, 165 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth.  And rounding out the top-five was Waltrip, who notched his first ever top-10 finish at Chicagoland.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the July 20 New England 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon.  Live coverage by TNT begins at 2 p.m. EDT.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Robby Gordon , Jamie McMurray , Elliott Sadler