Home Depot Racing Loudon II race report

Fifth Means Second for Stewart at New Hampshire LOUDON, N.H., (Nov. 23, 2001) - The New Hampshire 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway was the final race for NASCAR Winston Cup Series competitors in 2001, and that meant the final chance for ...

Home Depot Racing Loudon II race report

Fifth Means Second for Stewart at New Hampshire

LOUDON, N.H., (Nov. 23, 2001) - The New Hampshire 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway was the final race for NASCAR Winston Cup Series competitors in 2001, and that meant the final chance for any driver to improve their position in the season-ending point standings.

For Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac, that meant protecting his second-place position in points by maintaining his 26-point lead over third-place Ricky Rudd and his 42-point lead over fourth-place Sterling Marlin.

Stewart did just that on a brisk New Hampshire day, finishing fifth for his 22nd top-10 finish of the season while keeping Rudd and Marlin at bay.

Stewart started the 300-lap affair from the fifth spot, a placement given to him by virtue of the #20 team's fifth-place standing in car owner points at the time the race was postponed following the Sept. 11 attacks.

The opening laps were a bit hairy for Stewart, as he survived a lap three run-in with Marlin in turns one and two that slightly damaged The Home Depot Pontiac's right front fender. Just eight laps later, Stewart grazed the frontstretch wall coming off turn two. The incidents dropped Stewart from fifth to ninth, and as he tried to make his way back toward the front, he grazed the same wall in the spot on lap 25.

It wasn't until a caution on lap 31 for a Buckshot Jones spin in turn four that Stewart settled down, as he came to pit road for four tires and fuel.

The momentary break allowed Stewart to reset and refocus, but it also allowed The Home Depot Racing Team to realize their potential advantage on the majority of the field.

Many competitors were experiencing blistered tires, a condition that occurs when a tire gets so hot that the tread begins to separate in chunks from the core of the tire. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli's astute chassis setup for the quick one-mile oval resulted in normal tire wear, a feat that left other crew chiefs and drivers in envy.

As a result, Stewart was able to pick his way back toward the lead, as those in front of him continued to deal with blistered tires. Following a restart on lap 105, Stewart was back where he started, still looking for more. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate was the first to fall, as Stewart passed Bobby Labonte for fourth on lap 106. Next in line was Marlin, who fell to Stewart's wayside on lap 126. A lap later, Stewart jettisoned Dale Jarrett for second.

At that point the race mirrored the 36-race Winston Cup season. Jeff Gordon, who clinched his fourth Winston Cup title the week earlier at Atlanta, had a sizeable lead and seemed untouchable. Stewart could only ride in second, until his tires began to wear and his car became loose.

The #20 machine only got looser in the last 100 laps as the sun began to dip into the horizon and the air became cooler. Stewart fell back to sixth, but received some help from two unlikely drivers to record his 11th top-10 finish in the final 13 races of the season.

Jeff Gordon may have been leading, but it was another Gordon who had the strongest car in the field. Robby Gordon, a driver with an up-and-down Winston Cup career and no relation to Jeff, was bearing down on the newly crowned champ with 30 laps to go.

When a lap 272 caution and its ensuing restart on lap 284 bunched the field with 15 laps to go, the stage was set for a shootout. The 98,000 hardy New Englanders braving the chill and looking on got just that.

On lap 285, Robby made his way past Jeff entering turn three. It wasn't gentle, as Robby nudged Gordon out of the groove and into the Ford of Mike Wallace. Robby took the lead, Wallace took a spin and Jeff took issue with the whole ordeal.

With the caution flag waving, Jeff chased down Robby, catching him at the end of the backstretch. In uncharacteristic fashion, Jeff, arguably the sport's most polished professional, rammed the nose of his #24 Chevrolet so hard into Robby's bumper that it lifted Robby's rear tires off the ground.

Robby continued on, but NASCAR sent Jeff to the penalty box where he was assessed a one-lap penalty, dropping Jeff off the lead lap and to an eventual 15th place finish.

Stewart, having had a front row seat to the fireworks, joked over the radio, "That kind of controversy is unnecessary in this sport." With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Stewart just laughed over the radio, and his crew, all donning headsets, laughed too.

Robby went on to his first career Winston Cup win while Marlin finished second. Labonte came home third with Matt Kenseth in tow, and those two drivers were more than enough separation for Stewart to claim second in the points. Stewart's fifth-place run secured him a 22-point margin over Marlin, who passed Rudd for third in points after Rudd finished a distant 13th.

Second is Stewart's highest career Winston Cup point finish in his three years on the circuit, a position he took over five days earlier at Atlanta. The runner-up standing carries a lot of pride, but more importantly, a lot of money. Even though Stewart's championship winnings won't be announced until the banquet in New York, the difference between finishing second and finishing third in the championship point standings was $358,000.

While not as profound as in year's past, Stewart's statistics in 2001 are still impressive. He scored three wins - four if you include the non-points paying Budweiser Shootout at Daytona (Fla.) in February, 15 top-fives - three of which were runner-up finishes, and 22 top-10s. He also led a total of 518 laps.

All of this will be celebrated at the culmination of the Winston Cup season Nov. 30, when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Awards Banquet takes place in New York City at the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. TNT will provide live coverage of the event at 8 p.m. EST.

-HDR-

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