STEWART, HOME DEPOT TEAM TAME DARLINGTON They Battle Back for Sixth-Place Finish After Going Two Laps Down It's not often Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), leaves the 1.366-mile Darlington ...
STEWART, HOME DEPOT TEAM TAME DARLINGTON
They Battle Back for Sixth-Place Finish After Going Two Laps Down
It's not often Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), leaves the 1.366-mile Darlington (S.C.) Raceway egg-shaped oval with a bounce in his step. Almost never in his career, in fact.
Sunday's running of Saturday night's rained-out NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Dodge Avenger 500, however, was one of those rare efforts on the track affectionately called "Too Tough to Tame" that left a smile on the face of Stewart and his Home Depot team. Granted, it was a sixth-place finish, but considering Stewart's starting position of 26th, and the fact he went two laps down after being forced into the pits for a green-flag pit stop after cutting a tire on Lap 215 of today's 367-lap race, it was a moral victory in the truest sense.
"Talk about a hard day," said Stewart who recorded his seventh top-10 finish in 11 races this season and moved up a spot to sixth in the championship point standings. "We had to pass a lot of cars to get back up to where we ended up. I'm just proud of our guys. They didn't get down, I didn't get down, the spotter didn't get down. We all just kept our heads up and kept digging today. It was probably our best effort all year -- definitely the best race I've ever had at Darlington."
Admittedly not one of his best tracks on the NASCAR schedule over his illustrious career, Stewart found his Home Depot Chevrolet had all the fight in it he needed to tame the grueling Darlington oval once and for all. From his 26th starting position, he was able to steadily move toward the front of the pack. He cracked the top-20 by Lap 10, the top-10 by Lap 46, and was in the top-five by Lap 79 and continued his charge from there. Stewart was third by Lap 100, and had only the race leader, JGR teammate Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 FedEx Express Chevrolet, ahead of him on Lap 161. Stewart maintained his position in the top-three until an out-of-sequence pit stop on Lap 184 for handling adjustments, which dropped him back to 12th. But as he was charging back toward the top-10, a cut tire on Lap 215 forced a costly pit stop that sent him all the way back to 31st place, two laps down.
With fresh tires, Stewart easily gained one of those laps back by Lap 227 as he got around then-race-leader Ryan Newman. Stewart worked his way back up to 23rd place, one lap down, when the caution flag came out on Lap 254. On the Lap-259 restart, Stewart occupied the front of the inside lane of lapped cars and got the jump on race-leader Matt Kenseth in the outside lane to put himself back on the lead lap for good. Stewart easily maintained a 10- to 15-car cushion ahead of the leaders over the next 44 laps until the caution flag came out again on Lap 303. He restarted in 20th when the race went back to green on Lap 309, and gradually picked off car after car from there until the checkered flag flew on Lap 367 for his sixth-place finish.
"Considering everything that happened, when we got back on the lead lap and ran up front there, the biggest thing is you want to get away from those guys but you know you've got to manage your tires at the same time," Stewart said. "So you just run hard enough to stay ahead of them and luckily we didn't have to rely on a 'lucky dog' to get our lap back. We drove and got our lap back and were able to run up there with everybody else at the end."