Strong Stewart continues to make his point. KANSAS CITY, Kan., (Sept. 29, 2002) - Tony Stewart has been a championship contender ever since he entered the NASCAR Winston Cup Series as a rookie in 1999. And following an eighth-place finish in...
Strong Stewart continues to make his point.
KANSAS CITY, Kan., (Sept. 29, 2002) - Tony Stewart has been a championship contender ever since he entered the NASCAR Winston Cup Series as a rookie in 1999. And following an eighth-place finish in the Protection One 400 at Kansas Speedway, Stewart is now the closest he has ever been to the point lead in his still young Winston Cup career.
Thirty-six points are all that now separate Stewart from new point leader Jimmie Johnson. Previously, the closest Stewart had ever been to the point lead was back in March of 2000, when following the Las Vegas race Stewart was 48 points arrears his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and eventual champion Bobby Labonte.
Stewart's sixth top-10 finish in his last eight races certainly helped his point situation, but augmenting his rise was the misfortune suffered by fellow championship contenders.
Sterling Marlin, who had led the points for a span of 25 races, has now lost 216 points in his last five outings. His race at Kansas contributed to that number, when on lap 147 he slammed nose-first into the outside retaining wall upon exiting turn two. The end result was a 33rd place finish that dropped Marlin to fifth in the standings, 121 points behind Johnson.
Mark Martin, the man who took the point lead from Marlin after the New Hampshire race three weeks ago, suffered an engine failure on lap 250 and wound up with a 25th place finish. He dropped to second in points, 11 markers behind Johnson.
Stewart suffered no such bad luck in Sunday's 267-lap affair, bringing an unscathed Home Depot Pontiac home to his 17th top-10 finish of the season. It was, however, no easy feat.
Stewart's #20 machine was far from perfect, as it would begin a race run too loose before charging to the other side of the spectrum and becoming too tight. Despite crew chief Greg Zipadelli's constant tinkering to the car's chassis on each of the team's six pit stops, the proper balance could not be found. Stewart persevered nonetheless, steering clear of the day's 11 caution periods.
"We had a good car," said Stewart, "but I honestly don't believe it was a top-five car. The guys did a great job on pit stops and got us good track position all day. We started eighth and finished eighth, a solid effort all around - one that earned us some points and put us closer to that championship."
Closest to that championship is Johnson, the rookie driver who is now the latest wheelman to sit atop the Winston Cup standings. His 10th place finish at Kansas bumped him from second to first, leapfrogging Martin to the aforementioned 11-point advantage.
Winning the Protection One 400 was none other than Jeff Gordon, the reigning Winston Cup champ. He successfully defended his win in last year's inaugural Kansas race, leading twice for a total of 116 laps - the most of any driver. It was his 61st Winston Cup victory in 322 races, and it moved the three-time titleholder from fifth to fourth in points, 109 points behind Johnson.
A relatively scant 201 points now separate the top-nine drivers with just seven races remaining on the Winston Cup schedule. The next event facing the Winston Cuppers is Oct. 6 EA SPORTS 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Live coverage by NBC begins at 1 p.m. EDT.