Stewart Soaks Up a Win in Sonoma Team ...
Stewart Soaks Up a Win in Sonoma
Team #20 Scores Career Win #20
SONOMA, Calif., (June 26, 2005) - Even when he was driving with one hand, Tony Stewart was unbeatable in Sunday's Dodge/SaveMart 350k NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at the 1.99-mile Infineon Raceway road course.
The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing scored his 20th career Nextel Cup victory and his second at Infineon with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the gearshift as his transmission barely held together during the 110-lap race.
"Toward the end of the race with 30 laps to go, I lost fourth gear," said Stewart, whose last win also came at a road course - Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International last August, 30 races ago. "And it wasn't but a couple laps after that where it popped down to third gear twice and I thought, 'I can survive without fourth gear but I can't survive without third gear.' So, I just kept holding in it gear and made sure that it wouldn't jump out of third anymore. But it made it really hard to get through the esses and down through (turn) 10. That was our strongest part of the race track - getting down into (turns) 10 and 11 where we could get underneath guys in the braking zone."
Stewart out-drove and out-braked his Nextel Cup brethren all day. But it was far from easy, despite the fact that he led three times for a race-high 39 laps.
In the early goings, the Dodge/SaveMart 350k was between Jeff Gordon and Stewart. The rest of the 43-car field merely watched.
Stewart started from seventh while Gordon started from the pole. But it took just seven laps before Gordon and Stewart were running 1-2 around the twists and turns of Sonoma.
The duo ran the next 25 laps in that order until a series of green flag pit stops began, with Gordon relinquishing the lead on lap 32 when he pitted for scheduled service. Stewart held the point for just one lap before he too came to pit road for four fresh tires and a new load of fuel.
Stewart emerged from his pit stop as strong as ever. Gordon? Not so much.
Transmission trouble had bitten most of the Hendrick Motorsports stable, with Gordon's teammate and series points leader Jimmie Johnson the first to experience problems. He fell out of contention on lap 16, and about 10 laps later, Kyle Busch - another Hendrick driver - also began having transmission woes. The same troubles experienced by his teammates soon befell Gordon. When the day ended, Gordon, Johnson and Busch had finished 33rd, 36th and 40th, respectively.
"In the beginning, it was fun trying to size up Jeff Gordon and trying to figure out what we were going to do to contend with him for the win," said Stewart. "It was kind of a sick feeling in your stomach when I saw him have his problems. As much as it really helped us, it was one of those situations where it puts an asterisk beside (the win) for me in my mind, because I really wanted to race him for the win. I feel like we got a lot of help with his problem today. But, it wasn't a cakewalk at that point either."
Stewart's race was made more difficult during the team's second and last pit stop on lap 70. He came to pit road with the lead but left in 14th. A hung lugnut on the right rear tire delayed the tire exchange, and even with the stop being performed while the race was under caution, the lost track position would be a steep hurdle to overcome.
But as soon as the green flag dropped for the lap 72 restart, Stewart put on a passing clinic, making good use of the braking zones in turns 10 and 11.
His ascension up the leaderboard went like this: Lap 73 - 10th; Lap 74 - ninth; Lap 75 - seventh; Lap 77 - sixth; Lap 78 - fifth; Lap 80 - fourth; Lap 81 - third; Lap 85 - second; and finally, Lap 100 - first.
The pass to retake the lead with still 10 laps remaining was the hardest pass of the day. Veteran driver Ricky Rudd was the leader, and he defended his position vigorously.
"It was real difficult driving with one hand and trying to be smooth with a guy like Ricky Rudd, who is so smooth on road courses anyway," said Stewart. "He's smart too, and he knew that was my strong part of the track. You could see him doing whatever he could, going into (turn) 10 to try to get as good a run off of 10 as he could to protect himself.
"But we worked him really hard there for a while and got the tires hot trying to stay with him. That was the only part of the track that I could run faster than him.
"I got the tires hot and I was driving the car with one hand and I was making mistakes. At that point, the best thing to do was just not overdrive the car and slow down a little bit. I didn't have to pressure him at that point. It was better for me to let the tires cool off. Once I did that, I got my speed back and it gave me another chance to get another run at him.
"Every time he saw us get a run, he would block inside. It was just a matter of trying to catch him off guard. When I ducked down there and he didn't move, I knew all I had to do was just get beside him. At that point I had the line. It wasn't the most graceful entry and it wasn't my fastest lap by any means, but it was enough to get to the right spot on the race track to get by him.
"From there it was just a matter of hitting my marks and doing the same thing for 10 more laps. I didn't run any harder than I had to. I didn't run my fastest laps during my last five laps, but I ran clean consistent laps, and that's what we needed to do."
The win bumped Stewart from sixth to fourth in the championship point standings, and with the troubles experienced by Johnson - the former series leader - the standings got jumbled.
Greg Biffle now sits atop the points race, with Johnson 22 points back in second. Elliott Sadler is third, 177 points back, while Stewart's fourth-place standing has him 198 points arrears Biffle. A comfortable 30 points separates Stewart from fifth-place Mark Martin.
Rudd finished the race in the runner-up spot to Stewart, while Kurt Busch, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett rounded-out the top-five. Sadler, Jeremy Mayfield, Ron Fellows, Ryan Newman and Brian Simo comprised the rest of the top-10.
The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the July 2 Pepsi 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. The race begins at 8 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by NBC.