Phoenix: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart Endures Rough Homecoming at Phoenix Home Depot Driver Finishes 33rd at his West Coast Home Away From Home AVONDALE, Ariz., (April 23, 2005) - Tony Stewart started sixth and ran as high as third in Saturday night's Subway Fresh 500k ...

Stewart Endures Rough Homecoming at Phoenix
Home Depot Driver Finishes 33rd at his West Coast Home Away From Home

AVONDALE, Ariz., (April 23, 2005) - Tony Stewart started sixth and ran as high as third in Saturday night's Subway Fresh 500k NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. But at the race track Stewart considers his West Coast home away from home due to his many races in USAC and IRL IndyCar competition, his homecoming was marred by a disappointing 33rd place finish.

Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet proved formidable at the 1-mile oval, vaulting to fourth by just the first circuit of the 312-lap race. And by the fifth lap, Stewart caught Jeff Gordon for third.

Kurt Busch paced the field with Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle in tow, and with Stewart holding steady in third, the trio enjoyed a stranglehold of the top-three.

But when the yellow caution flag waved on lap 67 for debris, Stewart's race unraveled.

The caution allowed a quick and routine four-tire pit stop for Stewart. Unfortunately, Stewart's exit from pit road was anything but routine.

As Stewart followed Biffle down the narrow pit lane, Biffle suddenly checked up when a car in front of him came to a near stop. Stewart locked up his brakes and slid into Biffle's rear bumper, knocking in the grill opening on the nose of his Home Depot Chevrolet.

"Biffle and I pulled out and had already gotten our stops done," said Stewart, "but I think there were some cars that were still coming in and one of them stopped in front of Greg and he had to check up and then we ran into the back of him. I didn't know the guy was stopping."

Not knowing the full extent of the damage and not wanting to lose a lap to make what could be unnecessary repairs, crew chief Greg Zipadelli kept Stewart on the race track.

When the race returned to green on lap 70, Stewart returned to action. But the damaged grill slowly impacted the #20's performance. Up went the water and oil temperatures and down went Stewart on the scoring monitor. When the caution flag waved yet again on lap 133, it allowed the #20 team to address their car's overheating problems.

During a series of stops, The Home Depot crew changed four tires, filled the car with fuel, patched the grill and filled the radiator with ice-cold water - all without losing a lap.

"I didn't really know what it did to the grill, but I know it made the water temperature build up," said Stewart. "It's a testament to our motor department. To sit there and have a motor that was running 260 degrees with an oil temp at 275 (degrees), and run lap after lap while still putting out pretty good power - I thought the motor shop did a pretty good job."

Stewart was 26th when the race restarted on lap 145, and while deep in the rundown, was still on the lead lap.

When the race went green, Stewart's march toward the front began. Savvy driving and quick pit work allowed the 2002 series champion to rise to 15th by lap 200. And with over 100 laps still remaining, the outlook for Stewart and Co. looked promising.

But four laps later a tap from the nose of Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet sent Stewart spinning off turn three. Johnson drove away unscathed while Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd had nowhere to go. The two drivers piled into the left side of The Home Depot Chevrolet, destroying the #20's front fender, door and rear quarterpanel.

"The only way you spin out like that is when a guy jacks you up like that going into (turn) three," said Stewart after the race. "I don't know what he (Johnson) was doing. He was running guys up and down the race track. I don't know what was wrong with him tonight."

Again Stewart came to pit road for repairs.

Four tires were changed and the sheet metal was pulled away from the wheels. Stewart emerged in 24th, still on the lead lap when the race went green on lap 210.

But what was once a quick and agile Home Depot Chevrolet was now an ill-turning sled, for the front end geometry was knocked out of alignment.

Another caution on lap 222 allowed for another chance to make repairs. The team readjusted the car's toe-in and bolted on four new tires, but it provided zero relief when racing resumed on lap 224.

"I hate to say it guys," said Stewart on the radio, "but this thing drives worse now than it did before."

A three-car accident on lap 238 granted the #20 team another pit road reprieve. But this time a cockeyed wheel alignment wasn't the team's only trouble. Oil was leaking from underneath the car. Zipadelli noticed it as Stewart drove off and quickly radioed his driver to stop. The team pushed the car back into their pit stall and went to work. A broken oil line was the culprit and it needed to be replaced. An easy fix, but one that would put Stewart many laps down. The race went green on lap 244 while Stewart watched from pit road.

The work was quick, but in racing time, excruciatingly long. The hood slammed shut and Stewart attempted to drive off, but now there was another problem - no forward gear.

Stewart couldn't get the transmission to engage, and again the #20 car was pushed back into its stall. Mechanics went to work underneath the car and found a way to give Stewart third and fourth gear - good enough to make laps at speed and finish the race.

The damage, however, was done. Seven laps were lost in the pits and Stewart's race was essentially over. He soldiered toward the finish, collecting 33rd when the checkered flag dropped.

The sub-par finish dropped Stewart to 14th in the championship point standings, a loss of three positions. He is now 47 points out of the top-10 and a more daunting 347 points arrears series leader Johnson.

Busch went on to win the Subway Fresh 500k, notching his 12th career Nextel Cup victory and his first of the season. The reigning Nextel Cup Series champion was followed to the finish line by Michael Waltrip, while Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers rounded-out the top-five. Comprising the rest of the top-10 was Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Johnny Sauter and Joe Nemechek.

The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the May 1 Aaron's 499 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. The race begins at 1:20 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by FOX.

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Michael Waltrip , Joe Nemechek , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Johnny Sauter , Brian Vickers , Carl Edwards , Kyle Busch