Michigan: Tony Stewart race report

Michigan's Irish Hills Unlucky for Stewart Stewart Starts Last and Rallies to Eighth Before Late Race Crash BROOKLYN, Mich., (June 20, 2004) - Tony Stewart was well on his way to overcoming a NASCAR penalty that sent him to the tail end of the...

Michigan's Irish Hills Unlucky for Stewart
Stewart Starts Last and Rallies to Eighth Before Late Race Crash

BROOKLYN, Mich., (June 20, 2004) - Tony Stewart was well on his way to overcoming a NASCAR penalty that sent him to the tail end of the 43-car field at the start of Sunday's DHL 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway. He rallied to as high as eighth with 25 laps remaining in the 200-lap race, but a crash with Greg Biffle eight laps short of the distance dropped Stewart to a 24th place finish.

Less than two hours before the green flag ever dropped, Stewart was already dealing with adversity. While on time for the mandatory driver's meeting, Stewart departed the forum moments before its formal conclusion. As a series of questions peppered the NASCAR officials conducting the meeting, Stewart grew restless and spoke up, saying, "Can't we just go race?" And anxious to do just that, Stewart calmly walked out of the meeting that he thought was already complete. Problem was, the meeting wasn't over, at least not to NASCAR. And faced with this NASCAR first, officials had to make the call to penalize Stewart. Gone was his 27th place grid position, replaced with 43rd.

With 400 miles ahead of him in Michigan's Irish Hills area, Stewart and Co. felt confident in their abilities to get to the front. And despite having an ill-handling race car, they methodically worked their way forward.

By lap 38 they cracked the top-25 and by lap 72 they were in the top-15, all while dealing with a race car that Stewart described as having no grip. But crew chief Greg Zipadelli constantly tinkered with the #20 car's chassis during each one of the team's regularly scheduled pit stops, and the car steadily improved as the race wore on. That was evident on lap 130 when Stewart entered the top-10 for the first time.

The Home Depot Chevrolet was still too tight, forfeiting Stewart's ability to accelerate off the corners like he wanted. But he still managed forward progress, passing rookie Brendan Gaughan for ninth on lap 156 and Kevin Harvick for eighth on lap 167.

Stewart wanted more, and he felt that four fresh tires and another chassis tweak were merited when the caution flag waved on lap 175. As track crews cleaned up the oil from Joe Nemechek's blown engine, Stewart followed then race leader Sterling Marlin down pit road. But other drivers opted for track position over new rubber. Eight drivers in all stayed out, which meant that Stewart restarted in 15th when the race began anew on lap 177.

As those without new tires fell back, Stewart surged ahead. With 10 laps to go, he passed Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kurt Busch to take ninth. Ahead in eighth was Biffle. Stewart caught the Roush Racing driver on lap 192, and as he tried to make the pass in turn four, his Home Depot Chevrolet broke loose, touching the left rear corner of Biffle's Ford. As Biffle spun so did Stewart, with Stewart ending up worse for wear. The #20 machine smacked the outside wall hard with its right side, while Biffle made only slight contact with the wall on his left rear corner. Both cars headed to pit road for repairs.

Stewart's ride was badly bent, but with only a handful of laps remaining, the team peeled back the sheet metal and bolted on four fresh Goodyears. It was ugly but it worked. Stewart limped to the finish as the last car on the lead lap. His 24th place result did not affect his standing in the championship point chase, as he maintained his fifth-place position. But the gap between him and new series leader Jimmie Johnson widened, as 275 points now separate Stewart from the lead, a loss of 16 points.

Winning the DHL 400 was Ryan Newman, who scored his first victory of 2004 and the 10th of his career. Finishing second was rookie Kasey Kahne, while Dale Jarrett, Johnson and Elliott Sadler rounded out the top-five. Filling spots six through 10 were Marlin, Kenseth, Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, rookie Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip.

Earnhardt, who held the point lead prior to Sunday's race, finished a disappointing 21st. Johnson's fourth-place effort was enough to vault him past Earnhardt for the top spot, but only by seven points.

The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the June 27 Dodge/Save Mart 350k at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Live coverage begins at 4 p.m. EDT on FOX.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Dale Jarrett , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Michael Waltrip , Kevin Harvick , Joe Nemechek , Greg Biffle , Sterling Marlin , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , Brendan Gaughan , Brian Vickers , Elliott Sadler