Rockingham II: Tony Stewart race report

Points race tightens as Stewart struggles at The Rock. ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Nov. 3, 2002) - Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart came away with a 14th place finish in Sunday's Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at North Carolina Speedway,...

Points race tightens as Stewart struggles at The Rock.

ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Nov. 3, 2002) - Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart came away with a 14th place finish in Sunday's Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at North Carolina Speedway, narrowing his lead in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings to 87 markers over second-place Mark Martin.

Stewart came into the third to last race of the season with a 146-point lead over Martin, but an ill-handling race car that dropped Stewart to as low as 35th at one point allowed Martin to gain precious ground. While Stewart struggled, Martin excelled, leading five times for a total of 144 laps - earning 10 valuable bonus points - en route to a strong second-place finish at the track better known as The Rock.

From the drop of the green flag, Stewart began backpedaling from his 24th place starting spot. "This thing has never, ever been this tight," said Stewart over the radio, just 10 laps into the 393-lap event.

A caution on lap 23 gave The Home Depot team the opportunity to come to pit road and make adjustments, where crew chief Greg Zipadelli raised the track bar, removed a round of wedge and adjusted the air pressure in the right front tire. "Still too tight," said Stewart shortly after the lap 27 restart. "I'm doing everything I know to make this thing turn."

By lap 93, Stewart and Co. found themselves in unfamiliar territory, going one lap down to race leader Martin.

More changes were made on the second stop of the day, as Stewart continued to battle a tight race car. The lap 102, green flag stop yielded another track bar adjustment, with Zipadelli raising it two more rounds.

But the changes put Stewart on the other end of the handling spectrum, with the #20 machine tracking too loose through the corners. "You'll have to tighten me back up," said Stewart, his frustration growing. "I don't know what this thing's going to do from one corner to the next."

By lap 140, Stewart was 30th. He then lost five more spots before pitting on lap 174. Crew members put a round of wedge in the left rear corner of The Home Depot Pontiac and dropped the track bar one round in an effort to offset the loose handling condition. But as if the team was trying to balance itself on the edge of a razor blade, the changes only returned the car to being too tight.

Zipadelli continued to persevere, relaying words of encouragement to Stewart as the laps clicked off. Pit stops on lap 231, lap 259, and finally lap 293, collectively pointed The Home Depot Pontiac in the right direction. Stewart cracked the top-30 by lap 240, and twenty laps later, broke into the top-25.

Following the lap 293 pit stop - the final stop of the day - Stewart was in 24th position. He methodically worked his way closer to the leaders, passing Kevin Harvick for 20th on lap 321. Two laps later, Stewart made his way past Rusty Wallace for 19th. "I'm still a little bit tight," said Stewart, "but the car is the best it's been all day."

Newfound confidence augmented by stellar fuel mileage allowed for Stewart to move from 19th to 14th in the waning laps, outlasting the thirstier cars of Jeremy Mayfield, Jamie McMurray, Wallace and Ricky Rudd.

"I don't know where we missed at the beginning of the day, but it certainly wasn't the car we ended Happy Hour with," said Stewart, referring to Saturday's final practice session. "The good thing was that Greg never gave up and I never gave up. Even when I got a lap down, Greg probably did the best job of everybody today in keeping us on a good pit strategy, and at the end, finally making a change that the car really responded to. The decision to stay out on fuel mileage there at the end was a pretty gutsy call, and it really helped us out and got us a lot of positions. We turned a potentially disastrous day into just a bad day. As much as we're disappointed about it, things could've been a lot worse.

"I'm used up. I'm worn out right now, but still real happy with where we are. We've got two weeks to go. If we can just put two solid runs together, everything will work out fine."

"I'm just proud of the team and proud of Tony," added Zipadelli. "Most of the day, he kept his head and did a great job. He did what he had to do. We didn't do as good a job as we probably needed to adjusting early. We tried, but everything we did was wrong. We got it a lot better at the end. We probably wished we had a caution there at the end, but as it worked out, it was probably the best we were going to end up. From where we were at one time to where we ended up was a great improvement.

"It was just a matter of getting the right adjustments for what he was feeling or what he needed. It's just too bad it took us 300 laps to get it. But I guess it's better than not getting it."

Getting it in a big way was Johnny Benson, who out-dueled Martin for his first career Winston Cup victory. Winless in 225 previous Winston Cup starts, Benson's popular win made him the 18th different race winner in 2002 and the fifth different first time winner, joining Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, McMurray and Jimmie Johnson.

Martin's second-place finish, however, comes with a question mark, as post-race inspection found an illegal left front coil spring on his #6 Ford. A penalty of some measure will be expected early this week from NASCAR.

Following Martin in a legal third was Busch, winner of the past two Winston Cup races, while Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top-five.

Finishing a distant 37th was former championship contender Johnson, who was all but eliminated from the title chase after a second straight week of misfortune. A vibration caused by a loose wheel forced the team to go behind the pit wall on lap 259 and replace the affected hub. He was able to maintain his third-place point standing, but dropped from 150 points back to 219 points arrears Stewart.

The Nov. 10 Checker Auto Parts 500k at Phoenix International Raceway is next up for The Home Depot Racing Team. It's the penultimate race of the season, and if Stewart finishes eighth or better in the remaining two races, he will clinch his first Winston Cup championship regardless of the performance of any other driver. Live coverage from Phoenix begins at 3:30 p.m. EST on NBC.


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Johnny Benson , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray