Talladega: Tony Stewart race report

Typical Talladega. TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 6, 2003) - The standard "Big Wreck" came early at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday, when on just lap three of the Aaron's 499, a cut tire on the ...

Typical Talladega.

TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 6, 2003) - The standard "Big Wreck" came early at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday, when on just lap three of the Aaron's 499, a cut tire on the #12 Dodge of Ryan Newman triggered a massive accident, collecting 27 of the 43 cars involved in the race.

Amongst those collected was Home Depot Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart, who started the 188-lap affair in the 19th spot but ended the race 25th, dropping him two spots in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings to ninth.

Stewart was running on the inside lane behind the #88 Ford of Dale Jarrett when the melee occurred. As Jarrett checked up, Stewart ran hard into the #88's rear bumper, crushing the nose of his #20 Chevrolet. The damage was minor in comparison to what some of his other competitors endured, as five cars had to be taken back to the garage area on a wrecker.

Still, the newly altered nose section was of no help aerodynamically. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli brought Stewart to the pits on lap five, where crew members attached a strip of sheet metal across the dented area, effectively recreating a flat surface. Numerous strips of heavy duty tape were applied over the nose, and Stewart was sent back onto the race track.

But in addition to an aerodynamic issue, an overheating issue was at hand. Duct work that sat behind the nose and carried forced air from the front grill openings straight to the radiator was smashed, and as Stewart made a lap around the 2.66-mile oval - not even at speed since the race was still under caution - the engine temperature shot up dramatically. Stewart returned to the pits where cold water was sprayed onto the radiator, which temporarily brought the engine temperature down.

When the race restarted on lap 13, Stewart knew his #20 machine was not the same as it had been. "We're hurting," said Stewart over the radio.

With his engine temperature steadily climbing - from 240 degrees on lap 16 to 260 degrees on lap 20 - Stewart had to constantly pull out of line to get cool air to the nose of his Chevrolet. Remarkably, Stewart was able to climb to 10th, to which he said, "If we can ever get the heat under control, we'll be okay. This thing's still got some speed."

A reprieve came on lap 36 when the caution flag waived for debris. Stewart immediately came to pit road, where after four tires and fuel were added, the radiator was flushed with cold water, bringing the engine temperature down to 210 degrees.

When the race restarted on lap 40, Stewart was 15th, with his temperature gauge rising once more. Again, Stewart pulled out of line every so often to get air to the radiator, but never often enough to let the lead pack out of his sight. "I just want to have a motor at the end," said Stewart. "I'm not letting those guys get ahead of me."

More work was done to the nose while under caution on lap 64, and it seemed to go a long way to curing the #20 car's overheating problems. When the race restarted on lap 67, Stewart found himself well out of the draft, as he was one of few drivers to pit during the previous caution. But his engine was at least cool, and so too was Stewart, as he simply bided his time for the inevitable next caution period.

That came on lap 83, where another round of pit stops took place, but this time with The Home Depot Racing Team taking only two tires in a bid for track position. It worked. Stewart emerged from pit road in ninth-place, with a car now capable of racing for the win.

But moments after the race restarted on lap 89, Kurt Busch put an end to Stewart's victory chances. While coming off turn two, Busch's #97 Ford suddenly shot high, pinching Stewart into the wall. This time, the damage was severe.

Stewart was forced to the garage area, where the entire rear end assembly was replaced. After about 15 minutes of frantic work by crew members, Stewart rejoined the race, albeit many laps down.

It was now a race for 25th, amongst other battered and beaten race cars. Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray, both of whom suffered damage in the race's first incident, were only two laps behind Stewart. And Todd Bodine, also a victim of the early multi-car crash, was four laps back. Stewart, while totally out of contention for even a top-20 finish, had to make laps to ensure his 25th place result.

At the back of the lead pack, Stewart had the best view of the gouging going on for the lead, where Dale Earnhardt Jr., emerged victorious after a controversial pass of Matt Kenseth in the waning laps. Earnhardt appeared to pass below the yellow line - NASCAR's out of bounds territory. But in a "judgment call" by NASCAR, Earnhardt's pass was deemed legit, and he came away with his fourth straight win at Talladega.

Following Earnhardt to the line in second was Kevin Harvick, while Elliott Sadler, Ricky Craven and Terry Labonte rounded out the top-five.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the April 13 Virginia 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EDT.


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Matt Kenseth , Terry Labonte , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Ricky Craven , Jamie McMurray , Elliott Sadler , Mark Martin