Martinsville: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart earns a satisfactory sixth at Martinsville. MARTINSVILLE, Va., (April 13, 2003) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...

Stewart earns a satisfactory sixth at Martinsville.

MARTINSVILLE, Va., (April 13, 2003) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, grabbed a hard fought sixth-place finish in the 48th running of the Virginia 500 at Martinsville Speedway Sunday. The effort pulled the defending NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion up three spots to seventh in the series point chase, 238 markers behind leader Matt Kenseth.

Stewart's day began with the #20 machine occupying the eighth position on the .526-mile oval - a position Stewart quickly vacated as he made his way toward the front of the field.

With a car that seemed to improve with each lap around the paperclip-shaped track, Stewart started reeling in those ahead of him with relative ease. The Dodge of Ken Schrader was first on Stewart's list, quickly followed by the Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. By lap 65 of the 500-lap contest, Stewart was in second behind race leader Jeff Gordon.

The first caution of the day waived on lap 80, when the lapped car of Jerry Nadeau spun, causing an unavoidable but minor collision with Stewart. On the ensuing pit stop, crew chief Greg Zipadelli deemed the damage minimal, and with four fresh tires and fuel, Stewart returned to the track in third.

Pit strategy came into play during the second caution of the day on lap 121, when Zipadelli opted for a two-tire stop. The call paid off for Stewart, who emerged from pit road with the lead. He paced the field for the next 10 circuits before surrendering to Rusty Wallace on lap 132.

By the halfway point, Stewart had retreated slightly from the top of the field, and was racing in fourth-place while pursing new race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. As the race wore on, Stewart bounced between second and fifth, while making sure the leaders never left his sight.

With less than 30 laps to go, Stewart passed Earnhardt Jr., to take third. Once Stewart secured the spot, he floated the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet into the corners with perfection while trying to run down the cars of Gordon and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, who was now the leader thanks to a gutsy, two-tire pit stop during the previous caution.

Stewart worked the #24 car of Gordon hard, but it was to no avail. The #20 machine was slightly loose coming off the corners, and after using up his tires in his bid for second, Stewart was unable to hold his position. He dropped back to fourth in the closing laps and seemed to be headed for a top-five finish.

However, misfortune struck with just two laps remaining, as a spinning Kurt Busch put up a plume of smoke along the front straightaway. That set up a race to the yellow, with everyone knowing that the race would now end under caution. In the scramble back to the start/finish line, the #38 Ford of Elliott Sadler bulldozed the rear of the #20 Chevrolet, cutting Stewart's left rear tire. Two positions were lost in the process, dropping Stewart out of the top-five and into a sixth-place finish.

"We should have finished fourth, but they just leaned on us and knocked us out of the way," said Stewart, who recorded his fifth top-10 finish of the season. "They gut a run on me down in the corner and just used us up. It didn't matter to them whether we were there or not."

Capturing his first win of the season was Gordon, who beat-out a tenacious effort by Labonte. Earnhardt Jr., finished third, while Jeff Burton and Sadler rounded out the top-five.

The Winston Cup Series takes a weekend off in observance of Easter before heading to California Speedway in Fontana for the April 27 Auto Club 500. Live coverage of the event begins at 3 p.m. EDT on FOX.


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Ken Schrader , Jerry Nadeau , Kurt Busch , Elliott Sadler
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing