EARLY RACE ACCIDENT MAKES FOR LONG NIGHT AT DARLINGTON Despite Bad Luck, Stewart and Home Depot Team Rally to Finish 21st Tony Stewart's high hopes for sweeping the NASCAR race weekend at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway were dashed minutes into...
EARLY RACE ACCIDENT MAKES FOR LONG NIGHT AT DARLINGTON
Despite Bad Luck, Stewart and Home Depot Team Rally to Finish 21st
Tony Stewart's high hopes for sweeping the NASCAR race weekend at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway were dashed minutes into Saturday night's Dodge Challenger 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event. A crash with Elliott Sadler on just the third lap thwarted what looked to be Stewart's strongest effort yet in a Sprint Cup race at Darlington, and exchanged it for a frustrating 21st-place finish.
The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota came into the 367-lap affair fresh off a win the night before in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race. And in addition to having scored his first win of any kind in 20 total races at Darlington -- 15 in Sprint Cup and five in the Nationwide Series -- Stewart started fourth in the Dodge Challenger 500, which equaled his best Sprint Cup start at Darlington since he qualified fourth for the 2002 Southern 500.
The fourth-place qualifying effort was no fluke, for Stewart proved quick in each of the four practice sessions that led into Saturday night's race. But as Stewart entered the high side of turn one, Sadler's Dodge -- which was in the groove beneath Stewart -- got loose and slid into Stewart, sending both cars scraping along the SAFER Barrier that lines the outside retaining wall.
The damage to both cars was extensive, but more so to Sadler, as he was forced to the garage area to make repairs. Stewart, on the other hand, was able to continue, but not without numerous trips to pit road to right his machine.
Led by veteran Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Greg Zipadelli, the team attacked the No. 20 car's ailments. They pulled out the fenders from the front tires, as well as the right quarterpanel from the rear tire. And when the caution flag waved for the second time of the evening on lap 13, Stewart retuned to pit road so that the team could realign the car's front end geometry.
While far from perfect, the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota was in far better shape after being worked on by the experienced hands at Joe Gibbs Racing. That was a good thing, for in fashion uncharacteristic to Darlington, the next 128 laps were run under green, giving the team little opportunity to work on the tight handling condition that now plagued Stewart's ride.
But even after falling two laps down just shy of the race's halfway mark, Stewart and Co. never gave up. They continued to work on loosening up The Home Depot Toyota at every opportunity, while simultaneously hoping for a caution that would allow them a fresh start at getting at least one of their two laps back. That opportunity finally came when the caution flag waved on lap 281, as Stewart was able to line up first in the line of cars one or more laps down on the following restart.
When the green flag dropped, Stewart quickly passed leader and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to get one of his two laps back. And when the caution flag waved for what would be the final time on lap 303, Stewart was able to catch up to all the other cars that were one lap down.
During the final, 60-lap run to the checkers, Stewart ran a pace just as good and sometimes better than the leaders. He passed all of the cars that were a lap down, and even made his way past second-place Carl Edwards to set his sights on passing Busch outright so that he could return to the lead lap.
But between Busch's lightning-fast pace and the lack of another caution, Stewart could only climb to as high as 21st when the race ended.