THIRD AT NEW HAMPSHIRE KEEPS STEWART THIRD IN POINTS Home Depot Driver Just 10 Points Out of Championship Lead No driver had anything for first-time race winner Clint Bowyer in Sunday's Sylvania 300 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at New Hampshire...
THIRD AT NEW HAMPSHIRE KEEPS STEWART THIRD IN POINTS
Home Depot Driver Just 10 Points Out of Championship Lead
No driver had anything for first-time race winner Clint Bowyer in Sunday's Sylvania 300 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon. With Bowyer leading six times for a race-high 222 laps in the 300-lap race, it was a battle for second among the 42 other drivers.
Tony Stewart, wheelman of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), made the most of that battle, leading 39 laps -- second-best to Bowyer's massive total -- before finishing third behind second-place Jeff Gordon.
"If last week anybody asked me if running third was going to disappoint me, I doubt I would've said that it would," said Stewart, who used the first race of the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup to hold on to his third-place point standing while cutting the lead held by point leader and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson from 30 points to 10. "We've got two guys ahead of us we needed to get by though. We've got to keep working. It's a good start to the Chase. It's nine more weeks of this stuff. If we can finish third in all 10 races, I think we'll probably win a championship. We've just got to keep doing what we did today."
What Stewart did was start sixth and work his way to third in just 10 laps around the 1.058-mile oval. He stayed there until lap 69, where thanks to a two-tire pit stop directed by crew chief Greg Zipadelli, he took the lead on lap 70. Stewart kept the top spot warm for Bowyer, who reasserted his leading presence with a pass of Stewart on lap 108.
Stewart hung on in second until a green flag pit stop on lap 141, where his crew inserted a spring rubber into the right rear of The Home Depot Chevrolet. The No. 20 machine didn't cut through the corners as well as Stewart would've liked, and the spring rubber would soon allow him to roll through both ends of the race track better. But the seconds it took to insert the spring rubber during the four-tire change sent Stewart to fourth once all the pit stops had cycled through.
Stewart remained fourth until a pit stop under caution on lap 165. While Stewart took on four tires, other teams employed a two-tire strategy. That dropped Stewart to eighth when the race restarted on lap 168.
As the laps clicked off, Stewart steadily worked his way back toward the top-three. On lap 194, he passed Johnson to crack the top-five, and two laps later he displaced Gordon for fourth. Stewart picked off a third Hendrick Motorsports driver when he passed Casey Mears for third on lap 199.
Gordon came back and took third from Stewart on lap 219, and with another round of green flag pit stops beginning on lap 225, Stewart maintained his fourth-place standing. With less than 50 laps to go, Stewart passed his future JGR teammate Kyle Busch for third. It's where Stewart stayed as lap 300 drew near, for Bowyer was in another zip code and Gordon was a half straightaway ahead of Stewart.
The three Chase drivers finished 1-2-3, with Stewart's podium effort giving him his 11th top-10 finish in 18 career Nextel Cup races at New Hampshire.
"It shows why those guys got in the Chase," said Stewart, who is in his third Chase since the format's inception in 2004. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why these guys got in the Chase. It's because they put numbers up like that week in and week out. It's going to be a tough group, but it's making it fun already."