Talladega II: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart leaves Talladega intact and out front. TALLADEGA, Ala., (Oct. 6, 2002) - Tony Stewart emerged from his Home Depot Pontiac following his second-place finish in Sunday's EA SPORTS 500 at Talladega Superspeedway with a huge smile and pop to ...

Talladega II: Tony Stewart race report

Stewart leaves Talladega intact and out front.

TALLADEGA, Ala., (Oct. 6, 2002) - Tony Stewart emerged from his Home Depot Pontiac following his second-place finish in Sunday's EA SPORTS 500 at Talladega Superspeedway with a huge smile and pop to his step.

After pushing Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his third straight win at Talladega, Stewart's second-place effort earned him the point lead in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship standings for the first time in his career. Thanks to a heady drive by Stewart and a rash of bad luck by fellow championship contenders, Stewart left Talladega with a solid 72-point margin over his nearest pursuer Mark Martin.

"I'm just as excited as can be," said Stewart. "Home Depot and Joe Gibbs Racing and Greg Zipadelli (crew chief) and these guys have deserved this, probably more so than I have. These guys keep working. They work hard. We've got one of the hardest working teams in Winston Cup racing and they deserve this lead right now.

"This is for Bob Nardelli (CEO, The Home Depot) and all the people at Home Depot and their 280,000 associates right now. These people have stuck with us through thick and thin. We had an awesome day today."

In an uncharacteristic Talladega race that went caution-free from start to finish for only the third time in history, Stewart proved rock-steady as others dropped like rocks.

Jimmie Johnson, who held the point lead going into Talladega, saw his race go from bad to worse. After going a lap down following a bizarre pace lap incident in which Martin's Ford suddenly veered left into Johnson's right front fender, forcing Johnson to the pits for repairs, the #48 Chevrolet driver retired 173 laps later with engine failure. The resulting 37th place finish dropped him to third in points, 82 behind Stewart.

As for Martin, his pre-race run-in with pole-sitter Johnson dropped him off the lead lap as well, relegating him to a 30th place finish. He held steady at second in points, but saw the distance between him and the lead grow from 11 points to 72.

Jeff Gordon, fresh off a win last weekend at Kansas, suffered the worst luck, as engine failure befell him. His 42nd place finish dropped him three points in the standings to seventh, 201 points arrears Stewart.

The irony in all of this was that mechanical ills weren't supposed to throw a wrench into one's championship aspirations, the Big Wreck was.

The threat of the Big Wreck has been a common occurrence at the two restrictor plate tracks on the schedule - Talladega and Daytona (Fla.). The restrictor plate - a thin sheet of metal with four 7/8-inch holes inserted between a car's carburetor and intake manifold - constricts the amount of airflow into an engine, thereby limiting an engine's horsepower output. But with decreased output comes decreased throttle response. And with decreased throttle response comes huge, freight train-like packs of 43 cars racing in such tight confines that incredible, multi-car accidents are practically expected.

Seeking to remedy this situation, NASCAR reduced the size of each car's fuel cell from 22 gallons to 12.5, forcing teams to pit twice as often as they normally would. By forcing teams to pit more often, NASCAR reasoned, the 43-car field would become more strung out, and the likelihood of an enormous wreck would be avoided.

It seemed to pay off, for the caution flag never waved, allowing the 500-mile race to be completed in two hours, 43 minutes and 22 seconds. All 188 laps were as calm as calm can be at 195 mph, with Stewart plenty satisfied with his third runner-up finish of the season.

"I'm really happy with second, obviously," said Stewart. "To come out of here leading the points like we are, you couldn't ask for any more than that. But, our goal today wasn't to leave here leading. It was to come and basically just survive today. You never know what is going to happen at these places.

"I think we all owe NASCAR a big thanks on this (the new fuel cell rule used at Talladega). That is the best call they've made in a long time - to do the rule on the fuel cells.

"We were all grouped up all day," continued Stewart, "but at least parts of the race gave you a chance to catch your breath and run single-file to get caught up to the pack. You couldn't send 43 cars in the pits at one time and let them come out three-wide in a pack, so that was a good thing. It at least gave us an opportunity to rest and race each other one-on-one a lot today. You knew as the race was going to go on, if guys had bad pit stops, it was going to start weeding out teams. We had solid pit stops all day. The guys were unbelievable in the pits. We just got out there at the end.

"I guess it was Kurt Busch and I that came out together and started catching Junior and those guys when they all came out. We just had the momentum to get by a bunch of them. I wanted to get five points for leading a lap, to be honest. That's what I was shooting for when we got to them. We had such a big run, I thought I might be able to get by on the outside and just lead one lap, and then fall in line wherever and then race hard at the end. But, we got up to second there and there was just enough of a gap for me to get in between Junior and Ricky Rudd. I got down in there and it seems like everywhere we've been the last couple years, if you get that Budweiser Chevrolet and The Home Depot Pontiac together it's a pretty potent combination. Once I got there, I needed some help from behind and Ricky was a good pusher. It gave me an opportunity to help out and push, too.

"Our car really wasn't that strong today, to be honest. We had to rely on help from behind to keep our momentum up. But, once we would get our momentum, we could really help a guy in front of us. That's the way it's always been for Junior and I. If I can get back there I can normally help him out pretty good.

"Every time that second line developed I was worried and hoping that they would run out of laps before they could all get to us. But, every time it seemed like there was a second line there, they'd get out there and make a run and then they'd fade and then they'd fall back in line, so it was a pretty good sign. I just made sure that Junior was helping me protect my line on the bottom and keeping the guys behind me from getting underneath me coming off the corner, and they couldn't stop the two of us."

Following Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart to the line was Rudd in third, Busch in fourth and Jeff Green in fifth.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the Oct. 13 UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. Live coverage by NBC begins at 12:30 p.m. EDT.

-jgr/hdr-

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