Stewart Solid in Season-Opener Home Depot Driver Finishes Fifth in Daytona 500 This year's Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway was like three races in one for Tony Stewart, driver of the ...
Stewart Solid in Season-Opener
Home Depot Driver Finishes Fifth in Daytona 500
This year's Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway was like three races in one for Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. The two-time series champion had to come from the back of the field on three separate occasions before finishing fifth in the 203-lap race.
Stewart started 15th but made his presence known by lap 25 when he drafted Matt Kenseth into third with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in tow. He even held the spot two laps later when contact with Kenseth sent Stewart sideways through turn two, evoking images of Stewart's dirt track roots.
It was a prelude of things to come.
After taking the lead on lap 28, Stewart appeared to have the car to beat. He paced the field for the next 20 laps but relinquished the lead when Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet relinquished traction and slid into Stewart.
Gordon made a move for the lead off turn two and slipped under Stewart. But he kept slipping and tagged the right front corner of The Home Depot Chevrolet, sending Stewart into the wall and pancaking the right side.
"We slid up the race track and left the middle wide open" said Gordon. "I thought that I could clear him, and just about the time he got to my right rear, my car just took off pushing. There wasn't anything I could do."
The incident brought out the caution and Stewart promptly came to pit road.
A long pit stop was made to fix the damage, with crew chief Greg Zipadelli serving as field general with his over-the-wall troops reshaping the contours of the car's now adjustable sheet metal. When the race restarted, Stewart was 40th.
Despite its diminished aerodynamics, Stewart's Home Depot machine was still stout. By lap 66 he was back in the top-10.
A heavy cloud cover with an equally heavy mist had made the track slick. Stewart and the rest of his counterparts slipped along the track's surface, some handling the adverse driving conditions better than others.
Stewart hovered between fifth and 15th until lap 92 when the caution came out for debris. Zipadelli called for a two-tire change, allowing Stewart to restart in sixth when the green flag dropped on lap 95.
By lap 103, Stewart was again making a bid for the lead as he followed Mark Martin on the high side through turns one and two to take second. But three laps later Stewart was hung out of the draft through the tri-oval. And on lap 107, his second trip to the back of the field was underway.
Stewart and Kenseth got together again, this time as the two entered turn three. Stewart motored on while Kenseth slid sideways through the infield, across the track and into the turn three wall. NASCAR cited Stewart for rough driving, and after pitting for four tires and fuel, Stewart was forced to the tail end of the longest line.
"I guess I clipped him in the right front when I was coming across," said Stewart of his run-in with Kenseth. "I thought I was clear of him. I almost wrecked too."
Now solidly at the back of the field and with no track position to lose, Zipadelli called Stewart back to the pits in an attempt to make further repairs. Kenseth was also on pit road to fix his ride, and the two drivers exited pit road together. As Kenseth came onto the race track, he turned down into Stewart and pushed in Stewart's right fender with his left quarterpanel. This time Kenseth was cited for rough driving, with NASCAR issuing a stop-and-go penalty on the following lap.
The race restarted on lap 111 with Stewart in 36th. Once up to speed, Stewart noticed that the damage to his car was finally having an impact. "It's tight," he said over the radio as he pushed his way into the top-20.
A caution on lap 125 provided another opportunity for The Home Depot Racing Team to work on their car. Down pit road Stewart came, but he slid into his stall, leaving little room between the car and the wall. The result was a slow pit stop, for the lack of leverage between the jack man and the wall meant that raising the left side of the car took awhile.
Stewart was back to 36th when the race restarted on lap 128.
"It just doesn't run in a straight line anymore," said Stewart while under caution on lap 155.
"Yeah," added Zipadelli, "I wouldn't want to take it to the wind tunnel right now."
Nonetheless, Stewart methodically worked his way toward the front. With 20 laps to go he was in 20th, but one more close call was still to be had.
On lap 193, Kyle Busch ran into Stewart's rear bumper down the backstretch. And after Stewart had saved his race car - again - the two drivers bounced off one another into turn three. This time it was Busch who was cited for rough driving. He dropped to the back while Stewart was now an astonishing seventh as a green-white-checker finish approached.
In overtime, Stewart made his way to fifth just before Greg Biffle's spin in turn four ended the race under caution. NASCAR froze the field and Stewart had his fifth straight top-10 finish at Daytona.
"It was a wild day here," said Stewart. "We raced hard. We got back to the top-five and that was awesome for this Home Depot team. It was a little bit wilder than the qualifiers were - just a lot of guys out there being impatient too early in the race.
"The thing with Jeff (Gordon), I don't think it was his fault. I think he just got a spot up there where it was wet and he pushed, got into me and we both pushed into the wall. I wasn't complaining about that by any means. It was a wild day for sure. We had to come from the back about three different times."
Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 to score his 19th career Nextel Cup victory. Casey Mears finished second to notch his career-best finish, while Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler and Stewart secured the rest of the top-five. Rookie Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Earnhardt, Ken Schrader and Dale Jarrett comprised the rest of the top-10.
Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates - Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley - finished 30th and 41st, respectively.
The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the Feb. 26 Auto Club 500 at California Speedway in Fontana. Live coverage by FOX begins at 3:30 p.m. EST.