Talladega Tussle Leaves Stewart 22nd Home Depot Driver Leads Three Times for Seven Laps Before Late Race Spin TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 25, 2004) - The beating and banging that accompanied last week's short track race at the tiny ...
Talladega Tussle Leaves Stewart 22nd
Home Depot Driver Leads Three Times for Seven Laps Before Late Race Spin
TALLADEGA, Ala., (April 25, 2004) - The beating and banging that accompanied last week's short track race at the tiny .526-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway carried into Sunday's Aaron's 499 at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' biggest race venue - the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.
Home Depot Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart handled it all with aplomb, leading three times for seven laps before a spin 12 laps short of the finish ended his shot at victory. And when the checkered flag waved on the 188-lap race, the best result Stewart could muster was 22nd.
Running third behind the cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, Stewart was poised to draft his way into the lead. But an unintentional tap by the #48 of Jimmie Johnson sent Stewart spinning as the lead pack entered the tri-oval. In what was called one of the best saves in NASCAR racing, Stewart kept his #20 Monte Carlo off the wall. He slid sideways halfway down the short chute that led into the tri-oval before gathering his car back up in the infield grass. The only damage was a slightly bent front valance and four flat-spotted tires, an easy fix for The Home Depot Racing Team.
But with only nine laps remaining following the lap 179 restart, time was running out. Stewart was 27th and made his way to 22nd when Brian Vickers spun with three laps to go. Since the caution came with less than five laps remaining, NASCAR rules dictated that the race would finish under yellow, much to the fans dismay. Twenty-second would be as high as Stewart could finish.
As NASCAR ruled that Jeff Gordon had edged-out fan favorite Earnhardt for the win because he was ahead of Earnhardt when the caution flag waved, fans littered the track with beer cans and other debris. When Stewart crossed the finish line, he made a hard left onto pit road to avoid the raining garbage. That caught Terry Labonte by surprise, who was just to the inside of Stewart. As Stewart turned, he clipped the nose of Labonte's Chevrolet. Stewart then drove up pit road to have his rear spoiler height checked, where he also congratulated Earnhardt on a hard-fought second-place result.
Following the race, Stewart was asked about his incident with Kurt Busch on lap 83, where he made contact with the left rear corner of Busch's #97 in turn four, setting off a massive chain-reaction accident that collected 10 cars. It was similar in scope to the contact between Johnson and Stewart, but instead of Stewart going for a spin, it was Busch.
"I got underneath him (Busch) and then got him in a compromising position and I started to back out. I just didn't back up enough to get him out of it," said Stewart, who endured criticism from some other drivers for the accident. "Everybody can say what they want and the fans are going to say what they want. This is a product of restrictor plate racing. If they want to script us and tell us where they want us to run on each lap, that's fine. We can do that too. But Kurt and I get along well. I sure didn't want that to happen to him or anybody else. If you look at our track record in restrictor plate racing, I don't think we've caused too many wrecks in our career."
And when asked about his amazing sideways save through the infield grass, Stewart responded, "It's just part of racing. Jimmie (Johnson) and I are good friends too. I know Jimmie didn't turn me on purpose. That's just a product of what we have to do here for 188 laps. We've got to do it twice a year here and twice a year at Daytona (Fla.). I don't have any ill feelings toward anybody. He was just racing - trying to get every spot he could. If you look at all these cars here, you're going to see a lot of them that look like they just left Martinsville last week. I don't think I'm the only one who got in any scuffles today."
Stewart had hard numbers to support his assessment, as there was a race-record 11 caution periods for 55 laps, eclipsing the previous mark of nine caution periods set at Talladega in May 1972, 1986, 1987 and July 1986.
Stewart's 22nd place finish dropped him one spot in the championship point chase. He is now seventh in points, 178 markers behind series leader Earnhardt. Four points separate Stewart from sixth-place Kevin Harvick, while 16 points cushion Stewart from eighth-place Elliott Sadler.
As NASCAR determined that Gordon was ahead of Earnhardt when the field was frozen following the final caution, they also determined that Harvick finished third ahead of Johnson after initially scoring Johnson in third and Harvick in fourth. Finishing fifth was Robby Gordon, while Martin, Jeff Burton, Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray and Bobby Labonte rounded-out the top-10.
The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the May 2 Auto Club 500 at California Speedway in Fontana. Live coverage by FOX begins at 3 p.m. EDT.