Stewart goes back to the front in Pontiac

He handles new position, slick surface for tight win

Auto Racing

May 06, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- The conditions couldn't have been worse, and when Tony Stewart left Richmond International Speedway on Saturday night after just 66 laps of the Pontiac Excitement 400, his spirits were low.

His car wasn't working.

The new sealer used to resurface the three-quarter-mile racetrack had made it uncharacteristically slick and meant passing would be difficult.

And, because his team had to change his Home Depot Pontiac's engine before the start of the race, he had to give up his third-place qualifying position and move to the back of the field.

"Looking up and seeing 40 cars ahead of me, it wasn't a very good sight to see," said Stewart, who avoided all the mishaps that brought out a record-tying number of caution flags (14) for a record number of laps (103), to win the race yesterday.

"The biggest thing was just to be patient and try to get them [the cars in front of him] one or two at a time. I probably ran one of the most patient races that I have ever won, and it wasn't because I wanted to. It was because I had to."

Patience. Everyone needed it over the weekend.

The race was supposed to be run Saturday night, but rain that had delayed its start by two hours returned just 32 minutes and 66 laps after it started. The race was stopped at 9:36 p.m., and about an hour later was postponed to noon yesterday.

The crowd of about 102,000, which had arrived before 11 a.m. Saturday to endure the cold and rain only to see the event put off to the next day, was still fighting its way out of the parking lots well past midnight. Then most of them crowded back in yesterday. About 80,000 to 90,000 were in the stands to see Stewart pass rookie Ryan Newman for the lead with 28 laps to go and pull away for a 1.484-second victory.

"After the first 50 laps, I didn't think we'd make the top 15," said Stewart, who averaged 86.824 mph. "We made so many changes to the car during the day, I'm afraid to go look at it -- and we're not telling anyone what we did. We may need it when we come back here in the fall."

Perhaps more startling than the win was the fact that he is not the first or even the second driver this season to come from the back of the field to win. Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin has done it and so has Matt Kenseth, who is second in the points chase.

Marlin, Kenseth and Stewart, who moved from 10th to eighth in the standings, also are the only two-time winners in 2002.

"I told you all a long time ago it doesn't matter where you qualify in terms of winning," said third-place finisher Jeff Burton. "The races are long enough, you can come from the back. If your car is good enough you can come from anywhere."

Still, to do it at Richmond on a slick, one-lane circuit in the current competitive atmosphere, is something. Even Burton acknowledged the problems.

"When the green flag falls these days, you've just got to go [all out]," he said. "When they drop the flag, everyone starts racing. There is very little down time. Six or seven years ago, you could ride around for chunks of the race. But now it's so competitive. That's why there are so many wrecks. Everyone is right on everyone else's bumper, it's make or break, and it's made for people to be mad at each other."

Burton's assessment may seem almost incompatible with Stewart's stated game plan that used self-control. But Stewart didn't think so. He agreed with Burton.

"Everything out there depends on going all out at 100 percent all the time," he said. "But that doesn't mean you have to be reckless. I was going all out, but I wasn't overdriving the car.

"Guys in front of me were wrecking and guys behind me were wrecking. But I was only doing what my car was capable of doing. I was driving every lap like it was the last lap and after Lap 250 or 280, thanks to Greg [Zipadelli, crew chief] I started seeing changes in the way the car was running and it got my confidence up."

Even some of the race leaders didn't have the luxury of hanging around to see anything. Pole-sitter Ward Burton's engine blew as he was leading his 125th lap. Ricky Rudd, who tied Terry Labonte's Iron Man record of 655 straight starts, led a total of 90 laps. But he was sent to the garage on Lap 308 when Rusty Wallace suffered a cut tire, bobbled and sent Rudd spinning hard into the concrete, Turn 2 wall.

Jimmy Spencer had the lead for 75 laps, only to see it disappear when rookie Jimmie Johnson, last week's race winner, tried to pass for the lead. Johnson hit a rough spot and spun directly up in front of Spencer. Spencer braked hard and Newman rushed to the lead. He stayed there until Stewart caught up and passed him.

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