Stewart's Stock Continues to Rise After Southern 500; Old Spice/Office Depot Driver Nabs Third at Darlington; Moves to Second in Points Tony Stewart continued his impressive first season as a driver/owner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series by ...
Stewart's Stock Continues to Rise After Southern 500; Old Spice/Office Depot Driver Nabs Third at Darlington; Moves to Second in Points
Tony Stewart continued his impressive first season as a driver/owner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series by finishing a solid third in Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. It was Stewart's best Sprint Cup finish in 17 career starts at Darlington, besting a pair of fourth-place efforts earned in March 2000 and September 2001.
"That's the best finish I've ever had at a Southern 500," said Stewart, whose Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team is co-owned with Oxnard, Calif.-based Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world. "It's a tough race -- one of the toughest physically we run all year.
"I'm just proud of our guys. We had phenomenal stops all night, and that made the difference. I bet they passed 12 guys in the pits today. An amazing night for the pit crew."
The Darlington result also marked Stewart's eighth top-10 finish of the season and his fifth top-five in the last six races, which allowed the driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS to inch ever closer to the championship point lead. Stewart gained one spot to climb to second in the standings, just 29 points behind series leader and four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
"When we started this deal, on paper, this was the way it was supposed to work," Stewart said. "But to have it actually happen like this, it's been amazing. Just have to give everybody at Hendrick Motorsports props. The chassis department and engine department -- they just have us rock-solid right now."
Stewart started 18th in the Southern 500, but it didn't take him long to crack the top-10. Once there, he became a mainstay for the rest of the 367-lap race, despite dealing with handling issues in turns one and two of the 1.366-mile oval. Crew chief Darian Grubb tinkered with the car's handling through a series of wedge, track bar and tire pressure adjustments, and with less than 100 laps to go, Stewart was solidly in the top-five and appeared to have a chance at his first victory of 2009.
While running in second, a caution came out for debris on lap 319. Grubb called Stewart to the pits for the final time for two right-side tires and a full load of fuel. Other cars pitted for fuel only, so when the race restarted on lap 325, Stewart was in eighth, but he wouldn't stay there for long.
By lap 327, the Old Spice/Office Depot pilot was back in the top-five, and by lap 334 he managed to get to third behind Hendrick Motorsports drivers Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson. Despite two late cautions which allowed Stewart to close the gap behind Martin and Johnson, he could never get past the Hendrick duo.
"The guys that came in at the end of the race and got two (tires), we were leading that group," Stewart said. "We just didn't have enough to get by Mark and Jimmie tonight."
Stewart was followed across the stripe by his SHR teammate Ryan Newman. The fourth-place finish was Newman's third straight top-five of 2009, something the driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army/Haas Automation Chevrolet Impala SS hadn't experienced since late 2005 when he drove for Penske Racing. It also bumped Newman up two spots to eighth in the championship standings, 238 points out of first.
"I'm just so proud of everyone on this Stewart-Haas team," Stewart said. "Old Spice, Office Depot, U.S. Army, Chevrolet, Haas Automation, and everybody that makes this program go. It was a great night for the team."
In winning the Southern 500, Martin beat three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Johnson by 1.531 seconds to win his second race of 2009, his second at Darlington and the 37th of his Sprint Cup career. Martin's previous victory at Darlington came in September 1993.
Gordon finished fifth behind Stewart and Newman, while Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, rookie Joey Logano and 2003 Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There was an event-record 17 caution periods for 73 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the four-hour, 11-minute race.
The next stop on the Sprint Cup schedule is the May 16 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race from Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C.