Charlotte: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart Finishes 24th in Marathon Race CONCORD, N.C., (May 29, 2005) - In a race that lasted over five hours and featured a record-breaking 22 caution periods for a whopping 103 laps, the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at the ...

Charlotte: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart Finishes 24th in Marathon Race

CONCORD, N.C., (May 29, 2005) - In a race that lasted over five hours and featured a record-breaking 22 caution periods for a whopping 103 laps, the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at the 1.5-mile oval near Charlotte was a marathon affair. Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, finished 24th in the 400-lap race, and just like in any marathon, endured his share of ups and downs before the checkered flag fell.

>From his ninth-place starting spot Stewart dealt with an ill-handling race car. At the beginning of a run his #20 machine would be too loose, but as the run progressed it would get too tight, especially when exiting the corners. No matter the changes made to the race car, crew chief Greg Zipadelli was constantly chasing the car's handling characteristics.

Adding more angst to the #20 team's evening was the newly ground track surface. In lieu of repaving, a process called "levigating" was used to smooth the track's surface via a grinding process. Areas that were bumpy were levigated, while areas that were not went untouched. The end result was different textures at different spots on the race track. The inconsistent areas made finding a constant groove difficult at best.

"I'll be going along and I'll hit a spot and the car will jump away from me," said Stewart on the radio after 100 laps. "It's got me kind of spooked. I can't be as aggressive as I want to be."

On a tricky track surface in a race car that didn't drive well, Stewart hovered between 15th and 20th.

Progress was made however, as caution after caution allowed many a pit stop for The Home Depot team to work on their race car. And with the Coca-Cola 600 being the longest race on the Nextel Cup circuit, there was plenty of time to troubleshoot. By lap 245 Stewart radioed, "I may not have the fastest car on the track but it's the best it's been all night."

Then on lap 357 Stewart and Co. caught a huge break. After most of the leaders had made green flag pit stops, the yellow caution flag waved for oil on the race track. Stewart, who had not yet pitted, inherited fifth-place as all those who made green flag stops were now deep in the running order.

A quick, four-tire stop was made under caution, gaining Stewart one more spot.

Now fourth with 30 laps to go, Stewart appeared to be in prime position to steal a top-10 or even a top-five finish on an attrition-filled evening. But on the last yellow flag lap before the restart, a series of unfortunate events scuttled those thoughts.

As he rode through turns one and two, Stewart felt a slight vibration emanating from the front tires. He switched his radio to the frequency of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, who was just behind The Home Depot Chevrolet.

Stewart asked Labonte to check out both front tires and their clearance from the wheel wells. Labonte obliged as Stewart swerved his car back and forth down the backstretch so that Labonte could see that both tires were, in fact, clearing the wheel wells.

All appeared fine until Dale Jarrett, who by being a lap down was using the inside lane of the backstretch to make his way toward his rightful position at the front of the inside lane of the double-file restart, collided with Stewart. As Stewart turned left, there was Jarrett. Still on Labonte's radio frequency, Stewart was unable to hear his spotter tell him that Jarrett was underneath him. And unbeknownst to Stewart, there was Jarrett when he flicked the steering wheel left.

>From the #20 on the driver's side door to the front bumper, The Home Depot Chevrolet was a mess. But the green flag was now out and the race was again underway. As Stewart drove into turn one, smoke and sparks billowed from beneath the left front corner. A tire failure, or worse, was eminent. Stewart had to pit.

He did just that on lap 365, and again under caution on lap 370. The crew fixed the car but the damage was done in terms of track position. Two laps were lost, with Kyle Busch as the only other driver two laps down. Twenty-fourth was the best Stewart could finish.

As Stewart soldiered home to an unsatisfying result, his Joe Gibbs Racing stablemate was contending for the win. Labonte, winless since the 2003 season finale at Homestead (Fla.) 48 races ago, clawed his way up the scoring pylon to take the lead on lap 391. He held the point until the final lap, when a determined Jimmie Johnson nipped Labonte for the win by a scant .027 seconds. Labonte wound up second, while Carl Edwards, Jeremy Mayfield and Ryan Newman rounded-out the top-five. Comprising the remainder of the top-10 were Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Jarrett, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace.

Stewart's 24th place result kept him sixth in the championship point standings, although the gap between him and series leader Johnson expanded to 259 points. Labonte, however, made the points move of the race, gaining seven positions to move to 24th in the standings.

The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the June 5 MBNA RacePoints 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. The race begins at 1:35 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by FX.

-jgr-

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