TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 22, 2001) - With less than 25 laps remaining in the Talladega 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Tony Stewart had his Home Depot Pontiac out front. But behind him were 28 other lead lap drivers who wanted what Stewart ...
TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 22, 2001) - With less than 25 laps remaining in the Talladega 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Tony Stewart had his Home Depot Pontiac out front. But behind him were 28 other lead lap drivers who wanted what Stewart had.
Wanting it the most was Bobby Hamilton, who steered his Chevrolet to the outside of Stewart on the second to last lap and held on to take his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series victory since winning at Martinsville (Va.) in April of 1998.
"I really didn't think we had that good of a car to lead that way at the end, but we did a great job," said Stewart, who trailed Hamilton to the line by .163 seconds. "Kurt Busch was really helping out a bunch, giving us some pushes down the straightaways. I kept looking in the mirror to try to see who was getting to the outside. The only guy that was getting bigger in my mirror was the '55' car (Hamilton). He just did a great job. We needed the race to end about two laps earlier."
Even though the race didn't end exactly the way Stewart wanted it to, it did end in near-record time thanks to the absence of the yellow flag. For the first time since June of 1999 at Michigan, a Winston Cup race went caution-free, allowing the Talladega 500 to finish in 2 hours, 43 minutes and 4 seconds.
The lack of the caution flag was a welcome relief to the 43 drivers who took part in the 500-mile affair. With this being the first restrictor plate race since the season-opening Daytona 500 in which Dale Earnhardt died in a last lap crash that was preceded roughly 30 laps earlier by an 18-car melee on the backstretch, the thought of another such disaster weighed on the minds of drivers and teams alike.
"I think we're all pretty relieved that it ended the way it did," said Stewart when asked about the lack of cautions during the race. "Everybody really did a good job out there on the race track. There were three or four times right in front of me that we should've had 'The Big One.' But when you've got professional drivers and top-class guys like we have here, you're able to get races like this that go caution-free.
"During the driver's meeting Mike Helton (NASCAR president) gave us a pretty stiff lecture and Michael Waltrip gave us a little bit of a sermon to try to get us all in the right mindset for what we were going to have to go through today. I think everyone went into this race knowing that we were all going to have to take care of each other and everybody did a really good job with that. I think we produced a fairly good race today. We're all rolling cars out of here and we all get to go home tonight. That probably means more to us than anything right now."
When the day was over, Stewart's race stats matched his and his competitor's on-track composure. By coming from seventh in the field and leading twice for a total of 26 laps en route to his second-place finish, Stewart vaulted from 12th to ninth in the championship point standings. It was his third top-10 finish this season and his third top-10 in five races at Talladega.
"This is definitely what we needed," said Stewart. "We were up front at first, but then we got shuffled to the back. I was like, 'Alright, I'm going all the way to the back and I'm going to ride for a while.' I learned a lot of things that I needed to learn to try to get back up there at the end. It was nice for us to able to do that, and hopefully we'll have some more of that as the season rolls on."
Following Stewart in third was Busch, a rookie who scored his career-best Winston Cup finish. Fourth was Mark Martin, while Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate - Bobby Labonte - rounded out the top-five.
The next race on the Winston Cup schedule is the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway in Fontana on April 29 at 2:30 p.m. EDT. FOX will provide live coverage of the event.