LOUDON, N.H., (July 22, 2001) - Tony Stewart wheeled his ...
LOUDON, N.H., (July 22, 2001) - Tony Stewart wheeled his #20 Home Depot Pontiac to a solid fifth-place finish in Sunday's New England 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, rebounding after two consecutive finishes outside of the top-25.
Stewart had to work hard for his eighth top-five finish of the season, fighting his way from 25th in the field on a race track where passing comes at a premium.
It certainly wasn't easy circling the freshly sealed 1.058-mile oval, but Stewart made it look that way.
He cracked the top-15 just 23 laps into the 300-lap race, despite being cut off on lap four going into turn two by the #32 Ford of Ricky Craven. The resulting contact dented up The Home Depot Pontiac's left front fender, but Stewart pressed on, reaching the top-10 on lap 37.
He methodically picked his way toward the front, getting past John Andretti, Jeremy Mayfield, Todd Bodine, Jimmy Spencer and Steve Park in the ensuing 20 laps. Stewart climbed to as high as fourth after passing Mark Martin on lap 59, a spot Stewart held until the first round of pit stops while under caution on lap 61.
Stewart's first stop of the day was quick, but more damage would find the #20 machine when Martin pulled out of his pit stall and into the path of Stewart. The nose of The Home Depot Pontiac crunched underneath the bumper of Martin's Ford, dropping Stewart to seventh as the field exited pit road.
Undaunted, Stewart returned to the top-five on lap 75, only to have his forward progress thwarted shortly thereafter by the lapped car of Robby Gordon. Robby Gordon, substituting for Mike Skinner in the #31 Chevrolet, stood his ground, much to the dismay of Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli.
Finally, after frequent attempts to pass Robby Gordon, Stewart made his way by the #31 on lap 114, promptly passing Spencer for fourth six laps later.
Fourth-place would become home for Stewart for the next 100 laps, despite enduring numerous caution periods and making one pit stop. Following his third and final pit stop of the day, Stewart emerged in fifth, ready to challenge Ricky Rudd, Jeff Gordon, Spencer and Dale Jarrett in the lead pack.
Those four drivers had proven to be fast all afternoon, and they only seemed to be getting better as the race neared its finish. Not helping Stewart's cause were three caution periods during the last 50 laps.
"What I need are about 50 green flag laps," said Stewart over the radio, indicating that his car performed better during long, green flag runs. "All these restarts aren't helping us any."
Stewart regained his fourth-place position from Spencer following a restart on lap 254, only to see Spencer take the spot back after another restart with just three laps to go.
Stewart, comfortably in fifth, took the checkered flag and the 155 championship points that were awarded.
"It was a long day," said Stewart. "Every yellow that came out, we got tight for about 10 laps. It would just get tighter and tighter right in the center of corner. But The Home Depot guys did a good job and our Pontiac drove well for the most part. The motor department has really been working hard trying to gain us back some horsepower that we lost earlier in the year, and they did a great job today as well. But there was a bunch of unnecessary beating and banging out there today, and I've got a tore up race car to prove it."
"We had a good car at the beginning," echoed Zipadelli. "The track changed a little bit, and maybe we didn't adjust on it as much as we needed to. I mean, we did adjust on it, but maybe not as much as we should have.
"Track position killed us all day. We just couldn't get up there. We were in the top-five most of the afternoon, but lapped cars and our pit selection from qualifying poorly - those things hurt us, and it was hard to overcome those few things.
"But I'm proud of everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing and the guys who work on this Home Depot Pontiac for bringing us back into the top-five after the last couple of weeks we've had," added Zipadelli. "We've just got to get rolling again. We've got a lot of good races coming up for us and hopefully we can turn it around there."
The strong showing at New Hampshire bumped Stewart from sixth to fourth in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings. Stewart now trails point leaders Jarrett and Jeff Gordon, who remained tied for the point lead, by 274 points.
Jarrett made it known that at the age of 44, he still has the desire to score a second Winston Cup championship. He won the New England 300 by .659 seconds over Jeff Gordon to take his fourth victory of the season and his first at New Hampshire. Third-place went to Rudd, who continues to stalk the two point leaders with maddening consistency. This was Rudd's 14th top-10 finish of the season, helping him to stay within striking distance of the point lead. Just 28 points now separate Rudd from Jarrett and Jeff Gordon.
Finishing just ahead of Stewart in fourth was Spencer, who scored his seventh top-10 of 2001.
The next race on the Winston Cup schedule is the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway on July 29 at 1 p.m. EDT. TNT will provide live coverage of the event.