Joliet: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart bounces back at Chicagoland. JOLIET, Ill., (July 14, 2002) - Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team came into the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway needing a strong top-five finish and they left with an even better result - a ...

Stewart bounces back at Chicagoland.

JOLIET, Ill., (July 14, 2002) - Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team came into the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway needing a strong top-five finish and they left with an even better result - a top-three.

Stewart finished third in the 267-lap event, bouncing back from a 39th place finish last week in the restrictor plate race at Daytona (Fla.). With that result he fell from fifth to seventh in the championship standings, 212 points behind series leader Sterling Marlin. But his third-place effort in the Tropicana 400 put Stewart back into fifth, only 157 markers arrears Marlin.

"We had a really good run today," said Stewart shortly after climbing from his #20 Home Depot Pontiac. "That was probably the best car or the second best car I've ever had here at Joe Gibbs Racing. All the guys worked really hard on this thing and I'm just proud of everyone."

The team's hard work paid off early in the weekend, as Stewart qualified a respectable sixth on Friday. Stewart moved up one spot in the starting grid on Saturday, when second-place qualifier Kurt Busch grenaded his engine during the morning practice session. Busch's subsequent engine change sent the Roush Ford driver to the back of the 43-car field on Sunday, and allowed Stewart to move to the outside of row two.

Stewart took full advantage of Busch's gift, solidly running in the top-three until coming to pit road under green on lap 57. The pit stop was an early one, as the team projected their fuel mileage would take them to at least lap 65.

"We had some sort of fuel pick-up problem today that shortened up our fuel runs by about six or eight laps," said Stewart. "But the way our luck has been lately, if that was the worst thing to happen to us today, so be it."

The team made the best of the situation, constantly monitoring their fuel mileage in the pits with Stewart keeping a watchful eye on his fuel pressure gauge inside the cockpit. The early pit stops put the #20 machine out of sync with the rest of the field, but it also allowed Stewart to snare the lead on lap 84 and keep it for another 32 circuits as fellow competitors eventually made their way to pit road as well.

The back and forth of running in the top-10 and making pit stops continued throughout the day, but the constant chassis adjustments made by crew chief Greg Zipadelli made The Home Depot Pontiac better and better as the race drew to a close.

Stewart was able to re-take the lead on lap 240 and hold it for three laps before a caution for a crash in turn two. All the lead lap cars headed to pit road for their last pit stops of the day, with the exception of Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick.

Harvick had made a daring, three-wide pass down the frontstretch on lap 198 that sent the #29 Chevrolet driver spinning along the apron through turn one. He didn't hit anything, and his spin brought out the caution. Harvick came to pit road for four tires and fuel on lap 200, as did Gordon, but they were the only ones. A caution just a few laps earlier had sent all the competitors to pit road, and all knew they would have to pit again in the later stages of the race. But Harvick and Gordon played the fuel mileage game, topping off their tanks in the hopes they could make it the rest of the distance - a total of 66 green flag laps. No one else, especially Stewart with his fuel pick-up problem, wanted to take the gamble of running out of fuel before the checkered flag waved. They could only watch as Harvick and Gordon rolled the dice.

Stewart's final pit stop came under the race's final caution period on lap 242. It was a fuel only stop that took all of seven seconds, sending The Home Depot pilot back onto the race track in fifth. Ahead of Stewart were Harvick and Gordon, per their decision to stay out. Robby Gordon and Kurt Busch were the other two drivers ahead of Stewart.

When the race restarted on lap 247, Stewart fought lapped traffic and made his way toward the front. He was able to pick off Busch and Robby Gordon relatively quickly, but the lapped traffic Stewart faced allowed Harvick and Jeff Gordon to stretch out their lead.

When the race ended, Harvick had picked up his first win of the 2002 season with an .812-second advantage over second-place Jeff Gordon. Third-place Stewart crossed the stripe 3.219 seconds behind Harvick. Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five.

"It's nice to get back where we belong," said Stewart. "This team deserves to be here. Whether I deserve to be here or not is up to somebody else's opinion. But in my opinion, this team deserves to be here. They've worked really hard and their hard work is finally being rewarded now."

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the July 21 New England 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon. Live coverage by TNT begins at 2 p.m. EDT.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Sterling Marlin , Robby Gordon , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing