Stewart bumps way to victory

Short track draws aggressive driving

April 03, 2006|By ED HINTON | ED HINTON,ORLANDO SENTINEL

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Tony Stewart emerged yesterday as NASCAR's latest winner by short-track aggression.

He battered Jimmie Johnson's bumpers and fenders for several laps before taking the lead with 27 laps left in the DirecTV 500. Then he narrowly avoided becoming a victim when Jeff Gordon's predatory charge went awry on the final restart at half-mile Martinsville Speedway.

"I knew I was roughing him up a little bit," Stewart said of Johnson, "but that's short-track racing. If Dale Earnhardt had been here, I guarantee you he would have worn both of us out.

"Just as soon as I went by Jimmie, I knew if he could get back to me he was going to do the same thing," Stewart said. "I knew if Jeff could get to me I was going to get something from him, too."

Gordon, who wound up second in the melee, readily acknowledged that "I wish I could have gotten a little closer to Tony's bumper. It might have gotten more interesting."

Johnson finished third, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, to complete a sweep of the top five positions by Chevrolets.

The win was the first of the season for Stewart, the 2005 Nextel Cup champion.

The slamming and banging was a continuation of the ruckus last week at another half-mile oval, Bristol Motor Speedway. There, Kurt Busch knocked Matt Kenseth out of the way to win, and then Kenseth wrecked Gordon on the final lap, which triggered Gordon's now-notorious shove of Kenseth on the pit road after they'd climbed out of their cars.

But this time tempers didn't flare.

"I finished the race today," Gordon said. "So I had nothing to shove."

Indirectly, Kenseth got a payback on Gordon by bringing out the last caution, which snuffed Gordon's shot at roughing up Stewart to win.

On the restart after the 15th of 16 cautions, Gordon was all over Stewart's bumper. But behind them, Kenseth's brakes locked and he crashed.

"On the caution before that, I thought we had something for Tony," Gordon said.

But on the final restart with three laps to go, Gordon's car shot sideways in Turn 2, and that allowed Stewart to get away for keeps.

"The restart before that, my car went into [turns] 1 and 2 the best it had all day," Gordon said. "I got pretty excited and thought, `Man, we've got a shot to win this thing.' "

It would have been the third in a row here for Gordon, who swept both races last year.

But "then we got the last caution," Gordon said. "On the last restart I was hoping it would be the same [going into 1 and 2], but it wasn't. I just didn't have the tires up to temperature, and the car absolutely jumped sideways on me.

"After that, I didn't have any shot at getting to Tony."

Stewart made no apology for banging Johnson around.

"I didn't turn him around; I didn't spin him out," Stewart said. "There were a couple of times when I had him in compromising positions and I let him go."

"I don't have any complaints about the way he raced me," Johnson said. "I ended up third; I was fading."

Still, "I think he hit me for four or five laps," Johnson added. Actually it was for nearly six laps, 468-473, that Stewart shoved and beat on Johnson's car, with Johnson shoving back at times.

"The time he got by me," Johnson said, "he had my wheels up off the ground and I couldn't get in the gas. Then he got into the side of me, got by and drove away from me."

Realizing he was fading, Johnson moved over and let Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon take his shot at Stewart.

But this was a day for justice for Stewart on a track he'd left miserably after leading the most laps in both races last year. In the spring he'd led 247 of the 500 only to fall back when a wheel came off late in the race. Last fall he led 283 laps only to be outrun by Gordon at the end.

This time, Stewart led 288. So he has now led 818 of the last 1,500 laps at Martinsville.

"We were heartbroken when the wheel came off," Stewart said. "Then the second race we just got beat by Jeff. But coming here this time, I knew we were going to be a contender. For the last two weeks I couldn't wait to get here, because I knew we had a shot to win this race."

Johnson's finish, combined with Kenseth's late crash, moved Johnson back atop the point standings and dropped Kenseth from first to third. Mark Martin, who finished 13th yesterday, is second.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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