The Nextel: Tony Stewart race report

All-Star Challenge a Prelude to the 600 Third-Place Finish in All-Star Challenge Gives Stewart Momentum Entering Coke 600 CONCORD, N.C., (May 22, 2004) - The same strength that was evident last October when Tony Stewart won the UAW-GM Quality...

All-Star Challenge a Prelude to the 600
Third-Place Finish in All-Star Challenge Gives Stewart Momentum Entering Coke 600

CONCORD, N.C., (May 22, 2004) - The same strength that was evident last October when Tony Stewart won the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte was on display again Saturday night in the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, as Stewart drove an orange and green Home Depot Chevrolet that sported a Shrek 2 paint scheme to a strong third-place finish in the non-points event.

"I think we learned a lot," said Stewart, who led twice for 16 laps to win the first 40-lap segment.  "We learned simple chassis things just trying to figure out how the car reacted.  We weren't using the race as a test session.  But we do know that the changes we did make - we'll have notes on how it made the car react and how it ran on the next run.  We'll be able to utilize some of the knowledge we learned tonight for next weekend."

The longest race on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule - the Coca-Cola 600 - is this Sunday.  And Stewart's run in the All-Star race, as well as a productive test session May 11 at the 1.5-mile oval, have given Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team momentum and confidence as they head into round 12 of the 36-race schedule.

"There's just something about Charlotte that we like," said Stewart.  "It's nothing with the track in particular.  It's just something the crew chiefs have found with the (chassis) package and we seem to get around this place pretty well."

That was evident Saturday night.  After starting the three-segment, 90-lap affair in fifth, Stewart jumped into the lead with a decisive pass of Ryan Newman following a lap 15 restart.  Stewart held the point for the next four laps before having to make his mandatory green flag pit stop on lap 20.  When all the pit stops cycled through, Stewart was back out front, leading the final 14 laps of the first 40-lap segment.

The joy of winning the first segment was soon tempered by a field inversion.  Going into the race, competitors knew that the starting positions for the second segment would be inverted by anywhere between six and 12 spots.  Eight cars ended up being inverted, which put Stewart in eighth for the start of the second, 30-lap segment.

"Winning the first segment wasn't a good thing to do," said Stewart.  "I should have slowed down and let five guys pass me and finished sixth, because you knew they would at least invert six (positions).  We could've put ourselves clear back to 12th by winning that thing.  But you're not thinking about it.  You want to win everything that you're doing and that's evident by the first segment."

As it was, Stewart began the second segment in eighth, but quickly showed the same kind of speed he displayed in the first segment.  By lap 53 he had cracked the top-three, and following a lap 61 restart he was second, the position Stewart held to the end of the second segment.

But the end of the second segment was decision time for Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli.  To pit or not to pit?  The answer to Stewart and Co. was pit, as four fresh tires would give their Home Depot Chevrolet the grip it needed to run hard during the race's last 20-lap segment.  Most of Stewart's counterparts concurred, opting to pit for four tires and fuel.  Staying out was Newman, who gambled that his tires could last the distance.  And splitting the difference was Elliott Sadler, who pitted but took only two tires to restart in second behind Newman. 

When the race restarted on lap 70, Stewart was in fifth, as Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., beat the #20 driver out of the pits.  Newman and Kenseth quickly showed their hands, as they were the ones to beat.  Stewart, meanwhile, spun his tires on the restart, losing valuable time.  As Kenseth picked the lead from Newman, Stewart rose to third.  But soon the checkered flag waved, and the finish was Kenseth, Newman, Stewart, Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt.

"We just got a bad restart," said Stewart.  "We just spun the tires a little bit.  It's hard to do.  It's extremely hard to do.  We actually got it right tonight as far as getting it going and not spinning the tires.  It was a pretty good night tonight for the Home Depot team.  Winning the first segment and finishing second in the second one and third in the third one - so we stayed in the top-three all night."

The Coca-Cola 600 is set for May 30 at Charlotte.  Live coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. EDT on FOX.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Michael Waltrip , Ryan Newman , Elliott Sadler