IRWINDALE, Calif.- Tony "Smoke" Stewart, the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup champion, returned to his racing roots Thursday and smoked the field in a USAC Western States 360 Sprint Car Series "Casey Diemert Classic" 40-lap feature on the banked,...
IRWINDALE, Calif.- Tony "Smoke" Stewart, the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup champion, returned to his racing roots Thursday and smoked the field in a USAC Western States 360 Sprint Car Series "Casey Diemert Classic" 40-lap feature on the banked, half-mile Irwindale Speedway. The Agajanian/Irwindale promoted race was a preliminary to the annual Thanksgiving Midget Grand Prix in which Stewart also raced.
A crowd of 6,500+ and a national television audience, via a three-day taped delayed ESPN2 Thunder telecast of the races, witnessed Stewart's decisive (8.837 seconds) triumph. He had five lapped cars and half a lap between his car and his closest pursuer. Fans cheered his victory as Stewart, 31, climbed from the cockpit of his orange No. 20 Western Speed/Coca-Cola/Team ASE/Beef Packers Eagle chassis and raised his arms triumphantly. He earned $2,500 from the $16,305 purse.
Stewart winning car is the first Eagle paved track chassis ever built by Jerry Russell's Eagle firm in Springfield, Illinois. Eagle is best known for building dirt track cars, including the Stewart-owned No. 20 Eagle driven by Danny Lasoski, the 2001 World of Outlaws champion. Stewart never drove the new car until he hot-lapped it Thursday afternoon before qualifying it. Jason Leffler raced the new Eagle in its debut November 23 in the USAC W/S race in Tucson.
Larry Trigueiro, Rick Gerhardt and Gary Olson, from Central California, are co-owners of the winning car. They borrowed the 360 Wesmar-built engine from Dennis Roth's Beef Packers sprint car team. It had powered the No. 83jr winged sprinter driven by Sammy Swindell in the late October Trophy Cup 360 Sprint Car race at King's Speedway in Hanford.
Stewart praised the car and said it was the best pavement sprint car he has driven since his USAC Triple Crown championship season in 1995. In his only other sprint car race this year, Stewart won a USAC 360 cubic inch sprint car 40-lap feature on June 22 driving for Ted Finkenbinder at Altamont Raceway in Northern California. He raced his Winston Cup No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac the next day at nearby Sears Point in Sonoma.
Stewart drew applause from spectators at Irwindale after his victory with his comments when interviewed by pit announcer Larry Naston over the PA system. "All these USAC divisions are tougher than hell to race with. It's great to be back in a real race car and out of those taxicabs for a little bit. You guys are the real race fans. It's not about a signature. You want real racing. Everyone tells me to change. I won't change if you won't change. You've come here to see real racing," Stewart added. He wished the crowd Happy Thanksgiving before rushing back to the pits to climb into his Midget for the final race of the night.
Adding another first to his resume, Stewart became the first driver to win Thanksgiving GP main events in three different USAC series. His 20-lap TQ-Midget victory came on Thanksgiving, 1993 at the Bakersfield Speedway third-mile dirt track. His Midget 100-lap GP triumph was in 2000 on Irwindale's half-mile. He had not raced or practiced a sprint car at Irwindale before his victorious ride on Thursday.
Stewart, the second fastest qualifier in a 42-car field, started fifth and became the third race leader when he shot from third to first on lap three. He used an inside move in the third and fourth turns to pass Bobby McMahan (first lap leader) and Jason Leffler (lap two leader). Stewart opened half a straight-away advantage over Leffler by lap 20 when light rain visited the track brieflybut did not cause a caution flag. A pack of four dueling cars ran inside and outside near lap 30 and slowed Stewart momentarily as Leffler cut his lead to 40 yards. Once Stewart lapped the cars with outside and inside passes, he quickly opened a four-second lead.
Second place Leffler dropped out on lap 34 as ninth-starter Memphis racer Eric Butze (Beast/Gaerte) passed Scott Hansen (Beast/Chevy) for the second place $1,500 check. Butze, who raced for the first time at Irwindale on October 19, edged Hansen by 0.510 seconds for runner-up honors in the 40-lap race. Hansen collected $1,200 and took over the series point lead. Fastest qualifier Rick Hendrix started sixth and finished fourth in his Beast/Chevy. He was 10.208 seconds behind Stewart and collected $1,000. Kasey Kahne, a 2002 NASCAR Busch Grand National rookie and versatile USAC open-wheel champion, came from 13th grid position to finish fifth. He drove the same George Zarounian Beast/Chevy he drove to the October 19 USAC 40-lap Irwindale feature victory.
Pole starter Bobby McMahan (Keith Espindola Beast/Chevy), Jason McCord (Bob Consani Beast/Chevy), Tracy Hines (Andy Morales Tamale Wagon J & J/Chevy) Todd Ellison (Hamilton/Aaby Beast/Chevy) and Bud Kaeding (Bob Consani Beast/Chevy) completed the top ten. Tony Hunt finished 11th and was the final driver on the lead lap. Twenty of the 26 starters were still racing at the finish.
Chad Nichols, the W/S Sprint Series point leader, was in seventh place on the 12th and final lap of the first qualifying race when he hit the fourth turn wall. That event and the second qualifying race transferred the first six finishers in each race to the main event. Nichols' Bob & Lori Scott Racing teammate Daniel Hood won the second sprint car qualifying race with a last lap pass. Hood then relinquished his ride to Nichols, who had to start last in the feature because of the driver change.
Nichols advanced to 14th position by lap 14 of the main, but he parked in the infield six laps from the finish. His dropout cost Nichols the point lead. With 72 points availabel at the season finale (November 30) in Las Vegas, five drivers had a mathematical chance to win the championship. Hansen (689), Nichols (686), Hendrix (681), Ellison (649) and defending champion Hunt (627) were the title-contenders.
The only caution in the 16-minute race came on the fifth lap when Chuck Maddox and John Ryals tangled, sidelining Ryals' Beast/Chevy. A pair of 12 -lap races went to Lonnie Adamson and Hood. The 14 fastest qualifiers went directly to the main event. Hendrix, the 15th of 42 qualifiers, set fast time of 16.860, which fell short of Hunt's 16.469 (109.296 mph) track record, which he set on October 27, 2001.
- Tim Kennedy -