Home Depot Racing Rockingham II race report

Stewart Rolls to Seventh at The Rock ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Nov. 4, 2001) - The ominous North Carolina Speedway, a.k.a. "The Rock," didn't quite live up to its rough and tough reputation during Sunday's Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn...

Stewart Rolls to Seventh at The Rock

ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Nov. 4, 2001) - The ominous North Carolina Speedway, a.k.a. "The Rock," didn't quite live up to its rough and tough reputation during Sunday's Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400.

Nonetheless, Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac, marshaled his way to a seventh-place finish to secure his 20th top-10 of the season.

Even better, Stewart chiseled 10 points away from Ricky Rudd, who now holds second place to Stewart's third by 75 markers in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings.

Stewart and Co. started the 393-lap race from 10th position and quickly showed the 42 other teams that the big orange machine brought its "A" game to the sandhills. For by lap 62, Stewart was in the lead, passing the likes of point leader Jeff Gordon, Jerry Nadeau, Ricky Craven and pole-sitter Kenny Wallace.

Stewart continued to lead until Joe Nemechek passed him on lap 79. From there, Stewart was fixed in the top-five until a bizarre caution on lap 177, courtesy of driver Carl Long, shuffled the field like a deck of cards.

The caution flag waved as several teams were in the midst of making their second scheduled round of green flag pit stops. The #20 squad was one of the teams caught in the pits, which resulted in them going a lap down while the cars of Kurt Busch, Wallace, Nemechek, Johnny Benson and Nadeau maintained their lead lap status.

Once that occurred, the game plan for Stewart's drive changed from retaking the lead to rejoining the lead lap.

"It was my fault," said Stewart of the decision to pit when he did. "I told them not to keep me out any longer than they had to. That's the only reason we pitted a little bit earlier than he (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief) probably would've pitted me. But I was worried about giving up too much time with guys that had already pitted and had fresh tires. We did everything we could today. We were doing everything we could to stay on the lead lap and we had to do it for 200 laps. I don't think we've ever needed a caution more than we needed one today."

Stewart eventually returned to the lead lap, but it was difficult. With only two caution periods on the day, neither of which came after Stewart's ill-fated trip to pit road, earning that lap back had to be done without the luxury of a caution. If a caution had come out, Stewart could have had the opportunity to race, and beat, the leaders back to the start/finish line. That never came, so Stewart had to use pit strategy and all that his Home Depot Pontiac had to rejoin, and stay, on the lead lap.

It took all day, but Stewart earned his lap back, eventually finishing seventh when the checkered flag waved.

Nemechek, who proved strong all day, scored a surprise victory in the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 to take his second career Winston Cup win. Following Nemechek to the line was Wallace, Benson, Dale Jarrett and Nadeau, who finished second through fifth, respectively.

Despite a day that he described as "pathetic," Gordon continues to control the Winston Cup point standings. His 25th place finish in Sunday's race allowed second-place Rudd to gain 54 points, but when you still have a 326-point advantage, as Gordon does, losing 54 points isn't too bad. Gordon needs only to finish 28th or better in the last three races of the season to clinch his fourth Winston Cup championship, regardless of the performance of any other driver.

The next race on the Winston Cup schedule is the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 11 at 1 p.m. EST with live coverage provided by NBC.

-HDR-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Tony Stewart , Joe Nemechek , Jerry Nadeau , Kurt Busch , Johnny Benson , Ricky Craven , Carl Long