Darlington II: Tony Stewart race report

Darlington yields eighth for Stewart. DARLINGTON, S.C., (Sept. 1, 2002) - Tony Stewart ran a gamut of experiences in Sunday's Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, eventually coming away with a strong eighth-place finish that kept The...

Darlington yields eighth for Stewart.

DARLINGTON, S.C., (Sept. 1, 2002) - Tony Stewart ran a gamut of experiences in Sunday's Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, eventually coming away with a strong eighth-place finish that kept The Home Depot Pontiac driver in the thick of the championship title chase.

With Friday's qualifying session having been rained-out, NASCAR set the field via car owner points. That meant Stewart started fourth, while point leader Sterling Marlin started from the pole with second-place Mark Martin flanking him on the outside of row one. Rookie Jimmie Johnson started third, on the inside of Stewart.

Following a nearly two-hour rain delay, the 367-lap race finally got underway - sort of. The first 18 laps were run under caution to help dry the track with the heat provided by 43 NASCAR Winston Cup Series stock cars. The first lap at speed came on lap 19, where Marlin promptly threw a block on Stewart in turns one and two, knocking in the left front fender of the #20 machine. The damage would prove costly, not because anything mechanical was broken, but because the car's aerodynamics were so drastically affected.

Stewart began to fade quickly as The Home Depot Pontiac developed a severe push, sending the front of the car sliding toward the outside wall every time Stewart drove through the corners. By lap 63 Stewart had dropped all the way back to 20th.

"I've run all over this place except for the apron," said Stewart over the radio as he searched different lines on the track to help balance his race car. "I know it probably looks like I forgot to drive, but this thing's so tight. Be patient with me."

"We are," radioed back crew chief Greg Zipadelli.  "Just do what you can do
with it.  We'll get you fixed up shortly."

The team's first opportunity to pit came on lap 72, where crew members pulled out the left front fender as best they could in under 15 seconds, while also making a wedge and track bar adjustment as four tires and fuel were added.

The changes loosened Stewart up considerably, but 20 laps after having made that stop, the handling pendulum of The Home Depot Pontiac swung the other way. "We've gone from one extreme to the other," hollered Stewart over the radio. "This thing is bad loose now - everywhere."

When a caution appeared on lap 107, Stewart came to pit road to remedy his car's handling woes. Zipadelli reversed his original chassis changes slightly, this time adding a round of wedge and lowering the track bar one round.

It was definitely a step in the right direction, as the #20 ride began to stabilize. More changes were made on lap 155 during another caution period, while the crew's quick service gained Stewart five spots in the pits. "You guys are picking up more spots for me in the pits than I am out here on the race track," said Stewart after the team's third stop of the day.

As Stewart noticed the improvement in his car's handling, others noticed his improvement on the race track. By lap 182 Stewart was back in the top-10, with Zipadelli continuing to act as coach, telling his driver "to be smooth and take care of it."

The words were well-timed, for after John Andretti blew his engine going into turn one on lap 189, the race track was covered in oil. Safety crews worked to clean up the mess, but it still wasn't to Stewart's liking when NASCAR restarted the race on lap 201. "It's still pretty shiny up there," said Stewart, referring to the oil still in the outside groove in turns one and two. Racing resumed nonetheless, with a handful of drivers slipping and sliding through the first turn. Stewart was one of those drivers, losing traction and slapping the outside wall with the right front tire.

NASCAR promptly displayed the caution to clean up the remaining oil, and erring on the side of caution, Stewart returned to pit road to check the damage and take on four fresh tires. The trip was certainly warranted, for the right front fender had been rubbing the tire, which due to the impact, was mounted on a cracked rim.

The stop dropped Stewart down to 13th in the running order, but with fresher tires than the majority of his competitors, Stewart managed his way back into the top-10 just a few laps later.

As the race wound toward the finish, Stewart was racing with the likes of Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson. Stewart fought his way to as high as seventh by lap 347, but a resilient Busch took the spot back in the waning laps, leaving Stewart with one of the hardest earned eighth-place finishes of his career.

"We just kept fighting our way up through there," said Stewart, exhausted after the race. "The guys kept working hard and that's all you can ask. Everybody on the team - spotter, crew chief, pit crew, myself - we all just ran as hard as we could all day. We chased the thing back and forth. It was tight. It was loose. It was tight. It was just a typical Darlington for us."

The eighth-place effort maintained Stewart's fourth-place standing in points, but with series leader Marlin finishing four spots ahead in fourth, the gap between the two grew to 162 points.

Coming off a win last weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) that ended a 31-race losing streak, Jeff Gordon won for the second straight week by taking the checkers in the Mountain Dew Southern 500. It was his 60th career Winston Cup victory and his fifth win in the Southern 500, tying the mark set by Cale Yarborough. The win also moved Gordon from third to second in points, leapfrogging Mark Martin who finished the race 11th. Following Gordon to the line were rookie Ryan Newman, Bill Elliott, Marlin and Jarrett, who finished second through fifth, respectively.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the Sept. 7 Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Live coverage by TNT begins at 7:30 p.m. EDT.


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers John Andretti , Ward Burton , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Tony Stewart , Sterling Marlin , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Cale Yarborough , Mark Martin