Stewart Is Best At Last

RICHMOND, Va. – When the NASCAR Winston Cup Series pays a visit to Richmond International Raceway, one thing you can always expect is to see some of the best racing action of the year… along with some drivers left angry at one another.

Saturday night’s Pontiac Excitement 400 lived up to all that’s come to be expected from the three-quarter mile Virginia short track. At the end of the night, Tony Stewart was standing in victory lane after a hard-fought race, while the second and third-place drivers - Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace - were standing on pit road having heated words over their battle.

The nearly 100,000 race fans that rolled into the Richmond track were treated to one of the best races of the 2001 season. In the end, Stewart and his No. 20 Home Depot race team got the chance to celebrate their first win of what had been a difficult year for them.

Gordon edged Wallace for second, and rounding out the Top 10 were Steve Park, Ricky Rudd. Johnny Benson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Ken Schrader and Bobby Labonte.

It was a great win for Stewart in a number of ways, but most important for him was the fact that he still knows how to find his was to victory lane. Stewart led the series in wins last season with six.

Stewart also moved from ninth to seventh in points, 172 points behind current leader Dale Jarrett, who finished 15th on Saturday.

“Dale Earnhardt taught me a lot about this place,” Stewart said. “I followed him for a lot of laps here and he would just flat wear you out. You would think you were going to beat him and pass him and go on, and the next thing you know he would run back up on you. So thanks to him, I really learned how to save my tires and how not to abuse my equipment here. I learned a lot from Dale.”

One thing Earnhardt didn’t teach Stewart, he didn’t have to, was how bad a break it was to have the lead in hand in the closing laps only to see a late caution bunch the field and allow his fellow competitors one more chance at getting by. That was something Stewart had to experience for himself on Saturday.

“I didn’t want to see that last caution,” Stewart said. “The last two laps, my car slid around all over the place. I tried to think of every restart I knew in the book and everything I’ve learned in 23 years as to how to get a good restart with a couple laps to go like that. I think it worked.”

For most of the evening, it looked as if it was only going to be a matter of time before Wallace rolled his No. 2 Ford into the winner’s circle. Just hanging around and waiting for the right opportunity to present itself, Stewart got the chance he was looking for on Lap 356 of the scheduled 400-lap distance, racing Wallace side-by-side for six laps before Stewart took to the lead for good on Lap 362.

“I led a lot of laps, but Tony had a good car,” said Wallace. “On the long runs, his car was just hooked up better than mine. I gained a lot of points tonight and that was good, but the championship is what I want. I already got a victory last week and had a lot of Top 5s, now I have to get me a couple of poles. It was a good night for us at Richmond.”

Passing Wallace at Lap 362 wouldn’t be all the worrying Stewart had to deal with on Saturday, though, because with five laps to go, Dave Blaney hit the wall to bring out the yellow flag... just before the red flag put a temporary halt on the race. Once the track was cleaned up and ready to go racing again, Stewart got a great jump on Gordon with two laps to go and never looked back.

In hindsight, Stewart might have wanted to glance back – it was a thrill to watch - and see Gordon and Wallace trading paint just behind. The battle between the two drivers continued after the race, with plenty of finger-pointing and bumping on the cool-down lap.

After the race, Wallace and Gordon stopped on pit road and talked to each other about the late-race shoving match, with both walking away afterwards with a smile.

“We had a great car,” Gordon said. “I thought we had a shot at winning towards the end because you just never know what’s going to happen. We had a shot at Tony, but we’ll never know now. I’m real proud of my guys and (crew chief) Robbie Loomis, they worked hard and we were able to come home with a second-place finish. It was a good points day for us and we’re real happy.”

The red flag proved to very costly to Jarrett. The series points leader - who was running eighth at the time - ran out of gas and couldn’t get his car to restart. He got a push from a wrecker back into his pits and ended up finishing 15th.

“We were planning on staying out, but it ran out of gas there at the end,” Jarrett said. “So we wouldn’t have made it if it went green anyway. I guess that’s a miscalculation on our part.”

Gordon trimmed Jarrett’s points lead to 14 points. Wallace also gained a good deal in points, moving from fourth to third and only 62 points back.

The Wallace/Gordon battle capped off an evening of bump and runs.

It didn’t take very long for the first yellow flag of the night to come out, with Brett Bodine bringing out the first on Lap 5 after he was bumped and sent spinning along the front straightaway.

At the 100-lap mark of the scheduled 400-lap distance, the Top 5 consisted of Wallace, Rudd, pole winner Mark Martin, Stewart and Gordon.

Wallace held the lead for the first sequence of pit stops just after the Lap 100 point, and thanks to some speedy work by his No. 2 Miller Lite team, he was able to reassume a comfortable advantage once all the leaders had made their first stops of the night.

The second caution came out when Ricky Craven spun his No. 32 Tide Ford coming off the second turn on Lap 120. On the ensuing restart, Stewart moved into the lead on Lap 147 past Wallace, bringing Rudd’s No. 28 Texaco Ford into second with Wallace dropping back to third.

With Stewart establishing himself as a driver to watch, he still held the lead just before the race’s halfway point, or Lap 200, followed by Rudd, Gordon, Wallace and Benson. With half of the distance complete, the quick pace set early saw that only 17 drivers remained on the lead lap.

After a spin involving Andy Houston, the stage was set for all the leaders to make another pit stop. While Stewart came onto pit road with the lead, he came out fourth behind Rudd, Wallace and Martin. Jarrett, who started the race from the 20th position, had slowly but surely worked his way into contention and was running sixth on Lap 217 restart.

Just a few laps later, Wallace reasserted himself as the class of the field when he grabbed the lead away from Rudd on Lap 222. Ten laps later, the frontstretch at Richmond looked pretty much like “The Big Wreck” at Daytona and Talladega when Michael Waltrip trigged a multicar crash that took out not only his car from contention, but also that of three-time Richmond winner Terry Labonte, Dave Blaney and Kenny Wallace.

With only 100 laps to go, the Top 5 consisted of Wallace, Rudd, Jarrett, Gordon and Stewart.

Over the last 100 circuits, it was Stewart coming to the front to score the victory.

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series returns to action May 19 in The Winston all-star race from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the defending winner of The Winston.

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