Stewart Survives Talladega TALLADEGA, Ala., (Oct. 21, 2001) - Tony Stewart saved his best for last in Sunday's EA SPORTS 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, coming from the back of the field to finish second in the last 30 laps of 188-lap ...
Stewart Survives Talladega
TALLADEGA, Ala., (Oct. 21, 2001) - Tony Stewart saved his best for last in Sunday's EA SPORTS 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, coming from the back of the field to finish second in the last 30 laps of 188-lap race.
Stewart's game plan behind the wheel of his #20 Home Depot Pontiac was to bide his time at the back of the field for the majority of the race, then make a charge to the front after his final pit stop of the day.
This tactic was employed to avoid the inevitable "Big Wreck", an unfortunate commonality on the restrictor plate tracks of Talladega and Daytona (Fla.). Stewart did just that, earning a strong finish while avoiding the carnage that involved the majority of the field on the last lap.
Before all of that unfolded, however, a furious battle for the race lead was being waged by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip, Jeff Burton and Bobby Hamilton.
Burton and Earnhardt hooked up in a draft to the front that shoved them past current leader Waltrip on lap 161. Hamilton, the winner of the spring Talladega race who had been a force all day, challenged for the lead on lap 165, only to yield to Earnhardt on lap 170.
It was then when the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Stewart and Bobby Labonte drafted their way into contention, with Stewart making a Days of Thunder like pass to Earnhardt on the inside. Labonte, meanwhile, took the lead with a three-wide move on the outside thanks to the drafting help of Mark Martin on lap 184.
Labonte and Stewart were now one-two, but Earnhardt worked his way past Stewart on lap 186. Next in Earnhardt's sights was Labonte, and he bumped his way into the lead at the start/finish line on the white flag lap.
Then on the backstretch, it happened.
Labonte moved low to block Hamilton down the backstretch and clipped Hamilton's right front fender. Labonte then spun into Ricky Craven and the Big Wreck was on. Fifteen cars were taken out, although just about everyone from fourth-place back was affected. Labonte wound up on his roof and skidded the length of a football field, while Johnny Benson, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett and Sterling Marlin were some of the other names involved.
"I didn't think that with all those guys wrecking that anybody could've gotten a run on us without two or three cars pushing them," said Earnhardt. "I thought, 'Man, we might win this.' And as soon as I'm looking at cars spinning in my mirror, the 20 car is on the outside of me."
Earnhardt held off Stewart, and Stewart held off Burton. Matt Kenseth finished fourth, while Bobby Hamilton scrounged up a fifth-place finish after narrowly escaping the last lap crash.
"I'm just glad to be alive after this one's over," said Stewart, in no uncertain terms. "We just rode around at the back all day until it was time, until there were 35 (laps) to go. That was the last restart and we knew that we had to go at that point. So the last 35 laps were the only hard laps we ran all day. Are we happy with where we finished? Absolutely. I think we could have finished one spot higher even, if a couple of circumstances hadn't happened. But -- I don't know what to say because there's so much frustration. It's pretty bad when you're this frustrated.
"I'm not frustrated because Junior won," continued Stewart. "I think he did a great job. I watched him all day, because where I was at, I was able to watch everybody. I'm happy for Junior because he had the strongest car all day and he deserved to win.
"But when you come off of turn two after the checkered flag waves and you see your teammate's car upside down -- it scares you to death. And there is no reason that we, as drivers, should be put in that position."
After visiting the infield care center to check on Labonte, team owner Gibbs spoke with the media.
"Bobby is fine, but Tony was scared," said Gibbs. "He was scared because he saw Bobby, his teammate, upside down on the backstretch, and I can understand that.
"Tony took a lot this weekend, he's been through a lot and he's just happy to get out of here," continued Gibbs, referring to Stewart's argument with NASCAR Friday about wearing head-and-neck-restraints that led to a media blackout throughout the weekend, including post-race. "He's obviously gotten in trouble before for when he did talk when he was upset, so he hasn't talked. That's not a problem."
Stewart's second-place effort moved him from fifth to third in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings, 74 points behind second-place Rudd.
Point leader Jeff Gordon, who survived the Big Wreck and finished seventh, all but assured himself of a fourth Winston Cup championship. With Rudd's 26th place finish due to a badly damaged race car resulting from the last lap melee, Gordon opened a 395-point advantage in the point standings. All Gordon needs to do in the last five races is finish 19th or better and he will win the 2001 Winston Cup championship, regardless of the performance of any other driver.
Earnhardt's victory, his third of the season and fifth of his career, was a Winston No Bull win, giving himself and a paired fan $1 million each. The person paired with Earnhardt was Carrie Ritcher of Conneaut, Ohio.
The helmet and firesuit that Stewart wore in the EA SPORTS 500 will be available on eBay beginning Monday morning as part of an ongoing benefit for the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots program. The online auction will also feature autographed die-casts, replica mini hoods, plush polar bears and graphic storyboards. To bid on these items, simply go to eBay.com and click on the Coke Racing Family icon located on the home page, or just type Coca-Cola into the search field. Users may also log onto cokeracingfamily.com and click on the "Cool News" icon, which will direct users to the eBay site.
The next race on the Winston Cup schedule is the Checker Auto Parts 500k at Phoenix International Raceway on Oct. 28 at 3:30 p.m. EST. NBC will provide live coverage of the event.