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Stewart Endures Tough Day at California Home Depot Driver Finishes 16th After Run-ins with Wallace and Gordon FONTANA, Calif., (May 2, 2004) - Tony Stewart was only five laps into the 250-lap Auto Club 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at ...

Stewart Endures Tough Day at California
Home Depot Driver Finishes 16th After Run-ins with Wallace and Gordon

FONTANA, Calif., (May 2, 2004) - Tony Stewart was only five laps into the 250-lap Auto Club 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at California Speedway when his race began to unravel.

While racing Rusty Wallace for a spot in the top-10, the two got together off turn two, with the right front fender of Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet sandwiching Wallace's #2 Dodge into the outside wall. Following a trip to the garage area to repair damage from a later accident that involved Kurt Busch, Wallace was highly critical of Stewart.

"I don't know if he didn't see me or what, but he just drove right through the side of my car and stuck it in the fence," said Wallace. "I was right up against the wall and he drove right through it. It tore me all to heck."

Stewart, however, viewed the incident differently.

"The deal off of (turn) two was an accident. I don't know if he tucked up against the side of it to get a pull in the draft or what, but I got real loose all of a sudden, for no reason. I got into him and then pulled off as soon as I could. I didn't stay on him. I tugged on the wheel. I could've pinned him against the fence and I didn't do that.

"We came off of two and we got together and that put him in the wall, but the corner before that he drove right down into the left side of us like we weren't even there," added Stewart. "So I don't know why he's pointing the finger at somebody else. I got underneath him and I got loose coming up off of two. I didn't try to get into him, but in the corner before that he's the one that drove into us."

The damage to both cars was minimal, but at the 2-mile California oval, minimal damage makes a big difference in a car's aerodynamics. For Stewart, that meant a Home Depot Chevrolet that had been incredibly loose was now incredibly tight.

As crew chief Greg Zipadelli and spotter Mark Robertson discussed the damage, Stewart made contact with the faster car of Jeff Gordon.

"My spotter and my crew chief were talking about the damage on the car, but during that no one let me know that the '24' car was even there," said Stewart. "It startled me because I didn't even see him coming. I wasn't trying to hold anybody up, because I let everybody else go who was faster than me at that point. So I obviously wasn't trying to hold Jeff up either."

The contact left another battle scar on the #20 machine, but during a series of pit stops while under caution beginning on lap 24, crew members repaired all the necessary bodywork as best as possible. "It may not look pretty, but it'll be okay," said crewman Jason Shapiro.

When the race restarted on lap 30, Stewart was mired in 38th. Yet despite having a race car that was far from perfect, he worked his way through the field. Thanks to tenacious driving and tireless pit work, Stewart cracked the top-30 by lap 42 and the top-20 by lap 83. He climbed to 15th with a pass of Kevin Harvick on lap 106, and with more adjustments following a lap 142 pit stop while under caution, Stewart picked off Busch and Jamie McMurray on successive laps to rise to as high as 13th on lap 164.

But as quick as Stewart's ascension was, he fell back almost as quickly. "It was good for a couple of laps, but now it's terribly loose," said Stewart over the radio.

With 69 laps to go, Stewart was 19th. And after his final pit stop while under green on lap 198, Stewart fought back to earn a 16th place result when the checkered flag waved. The effort dropped Stewart one position in the championship point standings, as he now stands eighth, 169 markers behind series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is 15 points behind seventh-place Ryan Newman and 19 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte.

Winning the Auto Club 500 was Jeff Gordon, who scored his 66th career victory in his 375th start. It was also his 19th back-to-back win, as he won last Sunday at Talladega (Ala.). Finishing second was Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, while Newman, Matt Kenseth and Labonte rounded-out the top-five.

The Nextel Cup Series takes a weekend off in observance of Mother's Day before heading to Richmond (Va.) International Raceway for the Chevy American Revolution 400 on May 15. The race starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by FX.

-jgr/hdr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing