ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Feb. 24, 2002) - A strong fourth-place finish in Sunday's Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway went a long way toward Tony Stewart's goal of winning the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. After being 43rd in points...
ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Feb. 24, 2002) - A strong fourth-place finish in Sunday's Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway went a long way toward Tony Stewart's goal of winning the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.
After being 43rd in points following his lap two exit from the season-opening Daytona 500, Stewart now stands 22nd in points heading into the third race of the season at Las Vegas.
"We got a top-five today and that's a good run," said Stewart. "This is about how we ran last fall. We had a good, solid run today. Anytime you can get a solid run like we had today, you'll take it any day of the week."
Stewart was silently stout in the 393-lap affair, coming from his 19th place starting spot to 10th by lap 22. He hung in the top-10 throughout the day, making his way toward the leaders as the laps wore on, despite having a Home Depot Pontiac that was very loose at the onset of the race.
Still, Stewart was able to keep the top-five in sight. Through quick pit work and tenacious driving, Stewart hovered between sixth and eighth-place. During this time, crew chief Greg Zipadelli worked to better the #20 machine's handling.
Ten pit stops were made on the day, and each time an adjustment was made - sometimes subtlety with tire pressure, sometimes blatantly with track bar and wedge adjustments.
The end result was a much-improved Home Depot Pontiac. So improved, in fact, that by lap 235 Stewart was in fourth-place. Again, a fast pit stop helped the team gain track position, but a better handling race car allowed the team to keep it.
More help was found in the form of Ricky Rudd. The leader at the time, Rudd stalled his car on pit road during a scheduled round of pit stops on lap 258. Despite numerous attempts to re-fire his engine, it simply refused to turn over. It finally returned to life, but only after it put Rudd a lap down to the leaders.
As a result, Stewart inherited the third spot, with a resurgent Bobby Labonte just ahead in second, and an extremely strong Matt Kenseth in first.
A round of pit stops while under caution jumbled the running order on lap 290, and when Stewart peeled off pit road he was fifth. Kenseth and Labonte were 1-2, while Rusty Wallace - mysteriously fast on pit road - was third with Sterling Marlin fourth.
The race restarted on lap 294, and pole sitter Ricky Craven passed Stewart for fifth. "I'm really tight," said Stewart over the radio, as his car's handling was now the polar opposite from what it was at the start of the race, due in large part to Rockingham's ever-changing track surface.
The team went to work. When the next caution flag waved and another round of pit stops ensued, Zipadelli raised the track bar by a quarter-inch. Despite returning to the track in sixth, it kept Stewart within reach of the top-five.
On the final pit stop of the day on lap 366, again under caution, another chassis adjustment was made. A round of wedge was removed from the left rear corner of The Home Depot Pontiac.
It made all the difference.
At the race's final restart on lap 369, Stewart was sixth. Craven, who opted to stay out - the only driver to do so - paced the field. But with everyone behind Craven on fresh tires, Craven's time at the point was short-lived.
While Craven faded, Stewart surged. He displaced Wallace on lap 373 to claim fifth before catching Craven for fourth on lap 379.
With Labonte solidly in third, Stewart settled into fourth, pacing himself to the finish.
The finish came rather anti-climactically on lap 388 when the caution flag waved for debris on the frontstretch. Kenseth, who was working hard to hold off Marlin before the caution, inherited the win when the remaining five laps ended under caution. The top-five at the finish were Kenseth, Marlin, Labonte, Stewart and Craven.
The win was Kenseth's second Winston Cup victory, as his inaugural win came 60 races ago at Charlotte (N.C.). Kenseth led 152 of the 393 laps, leading the most laps in a race for the first time this season.
Marlin's second-place run enabled him to take the point lead with just two rounds down on the 36-race Winston Cup schedule. Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton is second in points, 18 behind Marlin.
The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the March 3 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 3:30 p.m. EST.