Las Vegas: Tony Stewart race report

Deck Stacks Against Stewart in Vegas LAS VEGAS (March 3, 2002) - The house always wins, especially if you're driving a Pontiac. Just ask Tony Stewart. After leading four times for 76 laps in Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 NASCAR Winston Cup...

Deck Stacks Against Stewart in Vegas

LAS VEGAS (March 3, 2002) - The house always wins, especially if you're driving a Pontiac. Just ask Tony Stewart.

After leading four times for 76 laps in Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 NASCAR Winston Cup Series event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Stewart came up empty on a day when a win would have meant a $1 million bonus.

Instead, the driver of The Home Depot Pontiac finished fifth with a car that was merely best in class.

His Pontiac Grand Prix, despite being a very good race car, simply isn't as good as the Dodge Intrepids, Ford Tauruses and Chevrolet Monte Carlos that Stewart must compete against week-in and week-out on the Winston Cup schedule.

The Dodge is just a little over a year old, while the second-generation Taurus and Monte Carlo are two years old. The Pontiac, meanwhile, is seven years old. Aerodynamic advancements, specifically in terms of downforce, are simply more prevalent in the newer models.

But despite the numbers being stacked against the Pontiac, Joe Gibbs Racing has managed to massage as much speed from the contours of the Grand Prix as possible. With two of the best drivers in Winston Cup - Stewart and Bobby Labonte - the Gibbs stable has still been able to win races. Of the 16 point races Pontiac has won since the 2000 season began, 15 have been by Joe Gibbs Racing drivers.

Stewart was intent on increasing that number at Las Vegas.

Eligible for a $1 million bonus if he won the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 by virtue of being a Winston No Bull 5 participant, Stewart seemed in good position to do just that.

He started his Home Depot machine from the 15th starting spot and made his way into the top-10 by lap 15. And like shooting cans from a fence post, Stewart picked off the cars ahead of him one-by-one. He made his way to fifth by lap 39, and while it took a quite a bit longer to reach first, Stewart reached it nonetheless.

With Stewart running in second, race leader Sterling Marlin ducked onto pit road. But as he did, he was nudged by the car of Jerry Nadeau. Marlin spun, hit nothing, and continued toward his pit stall. But as he drove toward his stall, he exceeded the pit road speed limit. NASCAR attempted to slap Marlin with a stop and go penalty, but the decision never reached the pit road official manning the area where Marlin's pits were located. With his pit stop complete, Marlin drove off, unaware that he had been handed a penalty. As a result, NASCAR rescinded its decision because Marlin got out of his pit stall before the penalty could be enforced.

Stewart, meanwhile, briefly took the lead before making his own pit stop on lap 124. But after the series of green flag pit stops had ended, Stewart was once again dicing for the lead with Marlin. He took it on lap 134, pacing the field until a lap 140 caution for mystery oil in turn three sent everyone to pit road. "There's no oil anywhere," said Stewart, matter-of-factly.

With the caution out, however, pitting was necessary. Stewart emerged from the pits in third behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rookie Ryan Newman, two drivers who opted for two tires instead of four.

When the race restarted on lap 144, Stewart only needed two laps to displace Earnhardt Jr. for second. He then caught Newman on lap 152 to retake the lead.

Stewart became the undisputed leader, pulling out a three-second margin over Marlin and Newman by lap 170. Stewart remained out front through what figured to be the final round of green flag pit stops. He was the first among the leaders to come to pit road, on lap 204, with Marlin coming in on lap 205 and Newman following a lap later.

Following those stops, Stewart drove to a one-second advantage over Marlin, with the contending cars of Newman and Kurt Busch well behind Marlin. Ward Burton stayed on the track until lap 220 before making his stop, but when he finally did come in, Stewart was back in the lead with just 47 laps to go.

Stewart continued to lead before a caution on lap 231 sent everyone to pit road one final time.

Many teams opted for two tires, while Stewart took on four. That jumbled the running order when the race restarted on lap 236, as Stewart was sixth while Jeremy Mayfield, Rusty Wallace, Marlin, Bill Elliott and Mark Martin made up the top-five.

While the new leaders battled, Stewart battled with lapped traffic. "We're behind cars and I've got no downforce!" screamed Stewart over the radio.

Marlin wound up with the lead while Stewart did all he could to take, and then hold, second.

When the checkered flag dropped it was Marlin out front, with Mayfield, Martin, Newman and Stewart rounding out the top-five.

Simmering over what could've been, Stewart left the track quickly and without comment. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli, however, offered his view on the day.

"When you put only two tires on a Dodge and a Ford and we've got four fresh ones on our car and they still drive away from you I don't know. If that wasn't a clear indication that we're at a disadvantage, then I don't know that I've ever seen a disadvantage. Yeah we had a great car, but what do we have? We have a top-five. I know there are a lot of people who would like to have that, but

"The '40' car (Marlin) speeds on pit road and NASCAR doesn't give them an infraction, and then he goes on to win the race. We've been hollering that the Pontiacs need help. But today the guys that got only two tires and couldn't run all day long, when they wanted to they could just get up on the wheel and go. That's aero - aero and tires when you get to that point. When you'd get 30, 40, 50 laps into a run like we were, we were as good, or better, than anybody. We showed that, but we've been showing that for two years now. But here, I guess that's good enough.

"To make ourselves better, we need what everybody else has got," continued Zipadelli. "We need a little kick-out on the front valance and something at the back of the car too. Our car just skates around when it gets near other cars. It's just not a very efficient car, but for what we've got, it's been a great car. It's frustrating and disappointing. Las Vegas is a race track we love. The $1 million was just a bonus. You don't have to pay me anything to come here and run as hard as we did."

While frustrating, the solid fifth-place finish did much to help The Home Depot Racing Team's standing in the points. After three rounds of racing, the #20 team has come from 43rd in points to 11th, thanks to the strong top-five runs at Rockingham (N.C.) and Las Vegas.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the March 10 MBNA America 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EST.

-hdr/jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Bill Elliott , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Sterling Marlin , Jerry Nadeau , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing