We're Baaa-aaack Stewart Finishes Fourth at California, Climbs to Within 234 Points of Leader Jarrett FONTANA, Calif., (April 29, 2001) - Tony Stewart's typical mid-season surge seems to have gotten off to an early start, as he notched his third...
Stewart Finishes Fourth at California, Climbs to Within 234 Points of Leader Jarrett
FONTANA, Calif., (April 29, 2001) - Tony Stewart's typical mid-season surge seems to have gotten off to an early start, as he notched his third straight top-10 finish by wheeling The Home Depot Pontiac to a strong fourth-place effort in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway.
Some racing observers had all but counted Stewart out of the championship chase, as he was mired 18th in points just five races ago. But after a seventh-place run three weeks ago at Martinsville (Va.) and a second-place finish last week at Talladega (Ala.), Stewart's fourth-place California run has moved him to within 234 points of current series leader Dale Jarrett, despite Stewart's ninth-place standing.
"It's about that time of year again," said Stewart. "We're just getting more competitive every week. The tires have been the one variable that's changed this year. These new compounds are a lot better and a lot safer for us, but it's just been a matter of finding the proper setup for them. But it looks like we're getting caught up finally."
Stewart started the 250-lap event fourth in the field of 43 cars, and ran within the top-10 throughout the day. While the handling of The Home Depot Pontiac wasn't perfect, it was manageable, as on each pit stop crew chief Greg Zipadelli tuned the #20 machine more to Stewart's liking.
"We made a lot of changes today," said Stewart. "We pulled a spring rubber out of the right rear and we made a lot of air pressure adjustments, track bar adjustments, wedge adjustments - we worked on this car all day. That's one of the best things about Greg. He's always making sure that when our car rolls out to the line for the race that we've got a lot of adjustability in it to where if we need to make any changes, we've got a race car that can do that.
"The pit stops were awesome today," continued Stewart. "We either gained track position or track time on every stop. That's what it takes. We didn't have a perfect car today, but the guys got us in a position to where we could fight at the end. And when we did get that car decent, we were there."
Indeed. With 30 laps remaining, Stewart was second behind Rusty Wallace. The changes made by Zipadelli proved to work best on long, green flag runs, and Stewart was keeping a hooked-up Wallace in sight. But on lap 225, the caution flag waved for a two-car accident in turn three. Wallace made a good jump on the resulting restart, and with Stewart's tires not quite up to race temperature, the Chevrolets of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. muscled their way past Stewart on lap 232.
"We didn't need that yellow there at the end," said Stewart. "We were comfortably in second. I don't think anyone was in Rusty's league, but I don't think the guys behind us could have run us down had the race stayed green. We were pulling away from Jeff. I saw the pack behind Jeff and I think we were pulling away from them, too. I think we could've had a good second-place finish, but to get a top-five after cussing this tire a few weeks ago at Texas - it's nice to be able to come here and feel like we're making gains."
Wallace became the eighth different winner this season by claiming victory in the NAPA Auto Parts 500. It was his 54th career win, ending a 20-race winless streak dating back to Bristol (Tenn.) in August of last year.
By finishing second, Gordon significantly shortened the point gap between him and current point leader Dale Jarrett. A 24th place finish due to a sickly engine kept Jarrett from increasing his margin over Gordon, as just 66 points now separate the two.
Earnhardt Jr. finished a strong third, ironically on the day his late father - Dale Earnhardt - would have celebrated his 50th birthday. In the last four races, Dale Jr. has finished 11th or better and has climbed from 26th to 10th in the point standings.
Trailing Stewart in fifth was last year's California race winner - Jeremy Mayfield, who subsequently made the points move of the race, climbing eight positions to 20th.
The next race on the Winston Cup schedule is the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on May 5 at 8 p.m. EDT. The FX network will provide live coverage of the event.