Rockingham: Tony Stewart race report

Rockingham a rocky road for Stewart. ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Feb. 23, 2003) - Tony Stewart salvaged a 20th place finish in the Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway, overcoming a pit road run-in with Jimmie Johnson, an on-track incident with Kyle...

Rockingham a rocky road for Stewart.

ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Feb. 23, 2003) - Tony Stewart salvaged a 20th place finish in the Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway, overcoming a pit road run-in with Jimmie Johnson, an on-track incident with Kyle Petty and an impact with debris that damaged the front suspension of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet.

"We've got a lot of bent-up stuff in the front suspension," said Stewart upon surveying his race car. "The sway bar tube is bent real bad and the right front A-arm is bent, too. To salvage a 20th place finish with all that happened today - we'll take it. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time two different times, and we ran over too much stuff that was falling off everybody else's race cars. Still, it was a lot of fun while it lasted."

That Stewart was able to enjoy such an adversity-filled day is testament to his goal of having fun in 2003. The reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion took the events of the race in stride, leaving nothing on the table as he edged out Steve Park for a top-20 finishing position.

But long before the checkered flag waved, Stewart was working. He started the 393-lap event in the 33rd spot, and by lap 27, passed Jeff Gordon to break into the top-20. With a Home Depot Chevrolet that was loose upon entry and exit while in the corners of Rockingham's 1.017-mile oval, Stewart continued to motor to the front.

With the help of his pit crew, Stewart jumped from 17th to 11th after their first pit stop of the day on lap 47. And while Stewart picked up 10th place from Ward Burton on lap 65, his pit crew again gained him track position during their second and third stops of the day. On lap 88, quick pit work allowed Stewart to climb to sixth, and on lap 92, stellar service bumped Stewart up to fifth.

But shortly after a lap 112 restart, Stewart began to fade as the handling of his car became too loose while exiting the corners. Stewart's handling woes would prove to be the tip of the iceberg, as the team's pit stop on lap 123 to remedy those issues resulted in the pit road run-in with Johnson that damaged the right rear corner of The Home Depot Chevrolet.

It wasn't but 50 laps later when the Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun coming out of turn two, and Stewart, in a successful effort to avoid Earnhardt Jr., clipped the right rear corner of Kyle Petty's Dodge. The left front nose of Stewart's #20 machine was crumpled, and while no mechanical damage was done, the resulting aerodynamic affect was akin to racing a brick.

Numerous pit stops to fix the damage dropped Stewart all the way back to 32nd. Nonetheless, Stewart persevered, piloting his way to 25th by lap 206.

Following another pit stop on lap 254 when crew chief Greg Zipadelli apprised his driver of his 25th position, Stewart responded, "That might be where we are, but that's not going to be where we finish."

Stewart proved to be correct, but not without one last obstacle to overcome. A large piece of debris, believed by team members to be a piece of lead dropped from another race car, bore a trench through the front suspension of The Home Depot Chevrolet when Stewart hit it just before a caution on lap 299.

Stewart brought his car to pit road, as the front end geometry was out of alignment. Crew members looked over the front of the car as best they could in under 15 seconds, but saw nothing that could be repaired without a huge loss in track position. All they could do was add four tires and fuel for Stewart to grit out the final 90 laps.

Stewart obliged. With enough fuel to go the distance following a restart on lap 301, Stewart began to get all that he could get. With 50 laps to go he made his way to 22nd, with his sights set on 21st place Steve Park and 20th place Jeff Green. When lap 393 finally clicked of the boards, Stewart was 20th.

Enjoying a much more productive afternoon was Dale Jarrett, who notched his 31st career victory in the Subway 400. Following Jarrett to the line in a spirited battle was Kurt Busch, while Matt Kenseth, Ricky Craven and rookie Jamie McMurray rounded out the top-five.

Busch's runner-up performance coupled with his second-place finish last Sunday at Daytona (Fla.) has put him atop the Winston Cup point standings by 31 markers over Jarrett. Stewart trails in ninth, 91 points arrears Busch.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the March 2 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 3 p.m. EST.


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Ward Burton , Dale Jarrett , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Steve Park , Kyle Petty , Jeff Green , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Ricky Craven , Jamie McMurray