DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (July 4, 2004) - A savvy call by crew chief Greg Zipadelli to take just right side tires during the final round of pit stops in Saturday night's Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway gave...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (July 4, 2004) - A savvy call by crew chief Greg Zipadelli to take just right side tires during the final round of pit stops in Saturday night's Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway gave Tony Stewart a shot at winning his first point-paying restrictor plate race. But in an environment where drafting reigns supreme, Stewart was outgunned by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, and his eventual result was a solid fifth-place finish.
"We gambled there at the end and took two (tires) and it got us good track position," said Stewart, who drove a specially painted Coca-Cola C2/Home Depot Chevrolet in the rain-delayed race. "My problem was I just couldn't hold 'em off. We were just too tight and they got a big run on us. But it was fun. It was good to get up there in the top-five today. It was a big improvement from where the car was in happy hour to race time."
Stewart started 17th in the 160-lap race, and despite driving a race car that wouldn't cut as sharply through the corners as he'd like, he became a fixture in the top-10 by lap 80. Thanks to constant chassis tinkering by Zipadelli, the #20 machine slowly began working in Stewart's favor.
But it was the team's final pit stop on lap 138 while under green that allowed Stewart to make some serious headway. With all the other leaders taking four tires, the #20 team's two-tire strategy propelled Stewart to the front when the cycle of green flag pit stops ended on lap 142.
"I'm feeling awfully alone out here," said Stewart over the radio.
To which Zipadelli said, "Keep your eyes on your mirror."
"That's the problem," replied Stewart. "I don't like what I'm seeing."
There was reason for concern, as Kevin Harvick was leading a freight train of cars that featured Gordon, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Michael Waltrip. All had taken four tires, and between Gordon, Waltrip and Earnhardt, they had combined to lead 134 laps.
As the pack chased down Stewart, plenty of jockeying took place, allowing Stewart to temporarily expand his lead and give crew members on the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team hope that their first win of the season was at hand. But all that jockeying did was line up teammates Gordon and Johnson, who provided the necessary 1-2 punch needed to pass Stewart with seven laps to go.
"It's not a pretty sight watching a dot behind you get really big all of a sudden," said Stewart. "It's hard because there's nothing you can do about it. I figured the whole line would go by us, but they caught me at the wrong spot on the track coming off of (turn) four. It actually got us going a little bit there and I thought we might have a shot at winning, but the car just kept getting tighter and tighter, and once they all got by it made it even tighter yet. I just tried to come home with a top-five finish."
Stewart did just that to record his fifth top-five of the season, which bumped him up two spots to fourth in the championship point standings. He trails series leader Johnson by 342 points while holding a slim 14-point advantage over fifth-place Matt Kenseth and a 39-point margin over sixth-place Bobby Labonte, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Gordon, meanwhile, rolled to his second consecutive win, his fourth of the season and the 68th of his career. Wingman Johnson was second while Earnhardt, Busch and Stewart rounded-out the top-five. Martin, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, rookie Brian Vickers and Joe Nemechek comprised the rest of the top-10.
The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the July 11 Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Live coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. EDT on NBC.