Comeback continues at Pocono Stewart wins first race of 2003 and 16th of career, climbs to 13th in points LONG POND, Pa., (June 8, 2003) -Tony Stewart continued his comeback in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings by...
Comeback continues at Pocono
Stewart wins first race of 2003 and 16th of career, climbs to 13th in points
LONG POND, Pa., (June 8, 2003) -Tony Stewart continued his comeback in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings by taking a convincing win in the Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway. The 16th win of his Winston Cup career was his first victory in 2003 and it followed a strong fourth-place effort at Dover (Del.) last Sunday, bringing The Home Depot Chevrolet driver to 13th in points, 540 markers arrears series leader Matt Kenseth.
Stewart started the 200-lap affair in fourth, and hung solidly in the top-five until a pit stop while under caution on lap 55. There, the #20 team made a two-tire pit stop to put them on a sequence to make only four more pit stops the rest of the race. The strategy dropped Stewart to ninth on the restart, but with 139 laps still remaining, plenty of time was available to make up the lost track position.
By lap 110, Stewart was back in the top-five, with the cars of Sterling Marlin, Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and Dale Earnhardt Jr., ahead of him.
Quick pit work furthered Stewart's cause, with a green flag pit stop for four tires and fuel on lap 127 that moved Stewart up two spots in the running order. Stewart hung tight in third, with Marlin pacing the field and Kenseth in between.
When the caution flag waved on lap 154 for the stalled car of Ricky Rudd, it sent the field to pit road for another round of service. In what would be the defining moment of the race for the #20 Home Depot Racing Team, the over-the-wall crew made a 14.6-second pit stop that vaulted Stewart into the lead when the race restarted on lap 157.
Stewart got an excellent start once the green flag dropped. Marlin and fellow veteran Mark Martin were now second and third, and drafted together in an effort to reel in Stewart. But in clean air, the defending Winston Cup champion was stout, keeping a healthy distance between his pursuers.
No one could go the rest of the race distance without a stop for gas. Marlin started the splash-and-go sequence on lap 172. Others soon followed, with Stewart making his gas-and-go on lap 176. It was an effortless stop, with Stewart getting in and out of the pits without problems.
When all the pit stops cycled out, Stewart was back in the lead with just 10 laps to go. Stewart's stellar drive coupled with the team's excellent pit work gave Stewart a healthy lead, but with six laps remaining, Kurt Busch pounded the turn two wall to bring out the caution.
Once track safety crews cleaned up the detritus of Busch's crash, it set the stage for a three-lap dash to the finish.
A good, clean restart was key for Stewart to fend off Martin, who proved his late race strength by getting past Marlin to vie for the lead. When the green flag dropped for the final time, Stewart delivered. He jumped out to almost a half-second lead, and held that margin until a three-car crash on the Long Pond straightaway brought out the caution one lap short of the finish.
"I knew at the end of the race we had a good car, and it was a matter of getting a good shift from second to third gear on the restart and just running my line," said Stewart. "I got a smooth shift and got into turn one all right."
Stewart raced back to the start/finish line and all but sealed his win. One lap later he made it official, taking his first victory since last year at Watkins Glen (N.Y.), some 28 races ago.
"We wouldn't have guessed it would've taken us this long to get back to victory lane," said a jubilant Stewart, "but it's just been one of those years for us. Everybody on this Home Depot team and at Joe Gibbs Racing have done such a good job of getting us better cars than we've ever had this year, and the motor department is giving us the best motors we've ever had as well. It's just been a matter of consistency on our part.
"We hadn't had any luck this year," continued Stewart, referring to his three finishes of 40th or worse that had dropped him to 20th in points prior to Dover. "But all of our sponsors kept patting us on the back and telling us we were going to get it eventually - we just had to keep our heads up and keep focused. We've done that, and we finally got one here today."
Martin and Kenseth stayed put and crossed the stripe behind Stewart in second and third, respectively. Earnhardt finished fourth, while Dover winner Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five.