Homestead: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart crowned champion at Homestead. HOMESTEAD, Fla., (Nov. 17, 2002) - Typically, 18th place finishes don't sit too well with NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Tony Stewart. But Sunday's 18th place result in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami ...

Stewart crowned champion at Homestead.

HOMESTEAD, Fla., (Nov. 17, 2002) - Typically, 18th place finishes don't sit too well with NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Tony Stewart. But Sunday's 18th place result in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway brought a big smile and tears of emotion to Stewart, as he clinched his first Winston Cup championship in just his fourth year on the circuit.

Coming into Homestead with an 89-point lead over his only real championship challenger - Mark Martin - Stewart needed a 22nd place finish or better to secure the title for his #20 Home Depot Racing Team. And while that number seemed to give Stewart plenty of cushion for the 267-lap race, an ill-handling Pontiac and close calls with other competitors made for perhaps the longest 267 laps of Stewart's life.

"I went into this race honestly thinking we had a shot to win," said Stewart. "Boy, was I wrong. Things were going well right up until about the 10th lap, and then I was like, 'Whoa, we've got issues."

Those issues came in the form of a Home Depot Pontiac that as the race wore on, became increasingly loose. Stewart drifted from his sixth-place starting position to 10th by the midpoint of the race, but with two periods of long, green flag racing, Stewart began backpedaling even more as his car became looser and looser, eventually losing a lap to then leader Joe Nemechek on lap 192.

All the while, Martin was heading in an opposite direction from Stewart, starting 34th and passing Stewart for 14th on lap 151.

Stewart finally managed to catch a break on lap 205. On the restart following a caution for a fiery turn one crash by Jimmy Spencer, Stewart pulled ahead of then leader Dale Jarrett to earn back his lap. When the caution flag waved once again for a trail of oil left by the blown engine of Matt Kenseth, Stewart was back among the top 21 cars on the lead lap.

But Stewart's day was far from over, a point best illustrated on lap 237 when John Andretti's engine grenaded, sending a plume of oily smoke right into the windshield of The Home Depot Pontiac. Stewart steered clear of the mess, unlike Robby Gordon, who's Chevrolet slid through the oil and impacted the turn three wall.

The anxious moments in the #20 team's pit area were calmed with the frank demeanor of Stewart, who radioed, "We're fine. We've got no problems."

No problems indeed. Stewart simply rode out the final laps, sliding from a late race high of 15th to his final result of 18th, allowing fellow competitors to pass without challenge. When the checkered flag fell, the championship was Stewart's by 38 points over Martin.

"We never gave up. Nobody gave up the whole day," said Stewart, as maroon and red confetti swirled about him. "We did this the way we got here, and that was as a team. Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) was encouraging me all day. Once we got back on the lead lap I felt much better and just kind of got my second wind for the race."

Stewart's Winston Cup title marked his ninth driving championship in 23 years of racing, beginning with a karting championship at the Columbus (Ind.) Fairgrounds in 1980 at age nine.

"This is an honor," said Stewart. "I think the coolest thing about this championship is that I finally did something that (A.J.) Foyt didn't do. Most people don't realize, but the first Indy car I ever drove was for A.J. at Phoenix. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. But it was one of the best experiences of my life, too. The relationship I built with A.J. that week will last a lifetime with him and I. I never got verbally beat up as bad with anybody as I did with A.J. for five days. His favorite comment was, whenever I was proud of something I did, he'd say, 'Just check the record books big boy.' That was his favorite quote - 'Just check the record books.' Well, you're damn right A.J. - check the record books! He may have won Daytona and may have won Indy, but he hasn't won an Indy car championship and a stock car championship. I finally got one up on the old man."

Overshadowed by Stewart's championship was Kurt Busch's win in the Ford 400. It was his fourth win of the season, and his third in the last five races. Following Busch in second was Nemechek, while Jeff Burton, Martin and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top-five.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers John Andretti , Jeff Burton , Dale Jarrett , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Jimmy Spencer , Joe Nemechek , Robby Gordon , Kurt Busch , Mark Martin