Daytona 500: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart scores career best Daytona 500 finish. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 16, 2003) - Tony Stewart scored a career best finish of seventh in Sunday's rain-shortened Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. But the driver of the ...

Stewart scores career best Daytona 500 finish.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 16, 2003) - Tony Stewart scored a career best finish of seventh in Sunday's rain-shortened Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. But the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet balanced his solid performance with ideas of what could have been had the race gone to its scheduled 200-lap distance.

Stewart proved he was capable of winning NASCAR's crown jewel, coming from his eighth place starting spot to third by just the fifth lap. There, he tucked in behind the Dale Earnhardt Inc.-prepared cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip. Stewart held the third spot until the first round of green flag pit stops on lap 34.

There, crew chief Greg Zipadelli called for a change of right side tires only, a strategy that allowed Stewart to emerge from the pits in first place. Stewart led the next six circuits around the 2.5-mile oval - the first time he had ever paced a Daytona 500 field.

The first caution of the day came out on lap 43, sending the entire field to pit road once again. Stewart again took two tires, but this time it was left side rubber. The crews for Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip also made two-tire stops, but managed to get their respective drivers out of the pits ahead of Stewart. When racing resumed on lap 45, it was Earnhardt Jr., Waltrip and Stewart riding 1-2-3.

But they weren't the only ones vying for the lead. Jeff Gordon began making his case for the point by passing Stewart for third on lap 50. A train of cars tried to follow Gordon on the inside, but only Elliott Sadler made his way past the reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion, dropping him to fifth.

Stewart quickly picked up fourth from rookie Greg Biffle on lap 56 before the second caution of the day came two laps later for a vicious accident that saw sophomore driver Ryan Newman tumble through the infield grass.

Newman walked away from his mangled and upside down machine, but as he did, rain began to fall. By lap 67 the rain had intensified to the point where NASCAR was forced to display the red flag, temporarily halting the racing action.

With jet dryers circling and Mother Nature kindly swapping the rain with some much needed sunshine, the track dried quickly. A little over an hour after the red flag had waved, the green flag was back out. Stewart moved to third, jettisoning Sadler to the tail end of the lead draft.

Stewart returned to his position of comfort, sitting just behind his unofficial drafting partner - second-place Earnhardt Jr., with Waltrip continuing to lead.

But that position of comfort began to unravel as Earnhardt Jr.'s #8 Chevrolet started losing power. On lap 86, Earnhardt Jr. was off the pace, forcing Stewart to pull high to avoid ramming him. With that move, Kevin Harvick darted one line higher in an attempt for the lead. It failed. Harvick instead fell out of the draft while Stewart tailed Waltrip into second place. "This is the best my car's been," said Stewart over the radio.

The third caution of the afternoon occurred on lap 96, setting up another round of pit stops. Stewart and Co. opted for another two-tire stop, but with more rain threatening, the #48 team of Jimmie Johnson gambled with a fuel-only pit stop. That gave Johnson the lead and put Stewart in second when the race restarted on lap 99.

When lap 100 clicked off the boards, a sense of relief swept through the pits, as the race's halfway mark had been reached. That meant that if more rain came - and more rain was indeed coming - the race would be official.

But Stewart needed that rain to hold off just a little bit longer, for on lap 101 he was left high and dry by Waltrip in an attempt to pass Johnson. Stewart did his best to salvage the draft, tucking in behind Gordon. Unfortunately, the damage was done. Stewart was out-drafted through turns one and two, falling to seventh when the caution flag flew yet again for debris on lap 103.

Racing resumed two laps later, but when last year's Daytona 500 victor - Ward Burton - crashed into the turn four wall, any chance for Stewart to advance his position was lost. As safety crews cleaned up the mess from the Burton crash, rain again washed over the race track - this time for good.

Waltrip was credited with his second Daytona 500 victory while Stewart had to accept his seventh-place finish. Kurt Busch, Johnson, Harvick, Mark Martin and Robby Gordon filled the gap, finishing second through sixth, respectively.

"It's our best Daytona 500 finish, so I'm excited about that," said Stewart, who now holds sixth in the championship point standings. "But we ran in the top-three pretty much all day and even led at one time. We had a better car than a seventh place car. Part of me is really happy and excited, considering we left here last year 43rd in points (due to an engine failure on lap two). But at the same time, I'm a little bit on the sad side because I know we could've finished better than where we did.

"But our Home Depot car was good. We were up where we wanted to be. We'll take it and go on to Rockingham."

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the Feb. 23 Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EST.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Ward Burton , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Michael Waltrip , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Robby Gordon , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Mark Martin