Michigan II: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart and Co. Fuel Their Way to Fifth at Michigan Home Depot Team Picks Up Ninth Straight Top-Seven Finish BROOKLYN, Mich., (Aug. 21, 2005) - Tony Stewart logged a strong fifth-place finish in Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400 NASCAR NEXTEL ...

Stewart and Co. Fuel Their Way to Fifth at Michigan
Home Depot Team Picks Up Ninth Straight Top-Seven Finish

BROOKLYN, Mich., (Aug. 21, 2005) - Tony Stewart logged a strong fifth-place finish in Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway, continuing a nine-race summer hot streak that has seen the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet win five races and finish no worse than seventh.

But in a race decided be fuel mileage, Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli had to plan their pit strategy just right to secure their series-best 11th top-five finish of the season.

After pitting while under caution on lap 144 for four tires and fuel, it was calculated that Stewart would be two laps short of completing the scheduled 200-lap distance. Another pit stop would have to be made.

If a caution came out before the end of the race, the decision to pit would be easy. But if the race stayed green, when to pit and for what - fuel only, four tires with fuel, or two tires with fuel - the decision would become complicated.

Zipadelli expected the latter, and it was for good reason, as the race ended up staying clean and green to the finish.

But with each team's fuel mileage varying, those who were able to stretch their 22-gallon fuel cells to the max played the spoiler, while those who had to pit were forced to get the best finish possible under the circumstances.

Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs were the spoilers, as they gambled that their fuel economy would go the distance to finish 1-2. Stewart, meanwhile, joined a host of others who had to pit. He gave up second-place with 10 laps remaining to dash into the pits for two tires and fuel.

With some fresh rubber and enough fuel to make it the stripe, Stewart rose to fifth, thanks in part to a tenacious drive and the empty gas tanks of those ahead of him.

"That's why we're smiling. A top-five for this Home Depot team is good," said Stewart, who started deep in the field at 36th. "We got up to second, which I was really proud of, but I just couldn't stay there at the end as all the pit strategy played out. It's kind of frustrating to a certain degree, but that's part of racing. We could've topped off with fuel just before the race went green on that final caution and gambled a little bit, but we played it safe. It worked for two guys and for us we lost three spots. But you can't not smile when you come out of Michigan with a top-five finish."

Stewart's grin was outpaced by the jubilant antics of victor Mayfield and his Evernham Motorsports teammates, as Mayfield's crew chief Slugger Labbe quipped, "Man, we had a 20th-place car and we robbed the bank."

Similar pit strategy paid dividends for Riggs, as the sophomore driver scored his career-best finish. Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards were the best of those who pitted, as the two finished third and fourth ahead of Stewart. Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Joe Nemechek, Brian Vickers and Jimmie Johnson comprised the rest of the top-10.

"We were waiting to see who was going to pit," explained Zipadelli of the race's frenzied finish. "We wanted to know who didn't pit and who was going to go for it. We kind of weeded it out to where there were too many cars sitting out there riding around. We kind of played it safe. We didn't really think we could make it on fuel. If we went to one or two to go and took a couple seconds of fuel, we probably would have ended up racing for third. Instead, we put tires on and got a top-five out of it. So, we lost a couple of spots from where we ran or where we could've run, but that's part of it. Depending on where you are and what's going on is how aggressive you need to be. We just kind of played it on the safe side."

Playing it safe bolstered Stewart's lead in the championship point standings, as he picked up 21 points on second-place Johnson. Stewart's lead over Johnson is 126 points, while a more daunting 252 points separates Stewart from third-place Biffle. And the 617 points that separates Stewart from 11th place Dale Jarrett assures him a spot in the 10-race playoff-style Chase for the Championship.

"I'm excited that we're in a position where we're locked in already," said Stewart, alluding to the top-10 driver ranking following the 26th race on the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule that allows only those drivers to compete for the series championship. "We're just trying to stay consistent and keep our team pumped up, and days like this will keep us pumped up going into the Chase."

The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the Aug. 27 Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The race begins at 7:40 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by TNT.


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Jarrett , Matt Kenseth , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Joe Nemechek , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Scott Riggs , Brian Vickers , Carl Edwards