Stewart Outlasts For Bristol Win

BRISTOL, Tenn. – The last time we saw Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon at Bristol Motor Speedway, Gordon was sideways on pit road after Stewart retaliated for contact on the track that left Stewart spinning out of fourth place.

This time, though, things were a lot smoother for Stewart. He easily got underneath Gordon in Turn 1 with 68 laps to go, took the lead and held off Kevin Harvick to win a caution-filled NASCAR Winston Cup Series Sharpie 500 Saturday night at “Thunder Valley.”

“The first time I came in here, I was amazed,” Stewart said. “I came here in ’96 with Harry Ranier, and we came through that gate and got down in the infield, and I looked up and never saw a sight like I saw that day. Each year, it kept getting bigger and bigger.

“This has always been my favorite track. It’s just because it’s exciting. You can’t rest here at all. You can be patient, but you can’t rest. I’m worn out right now.

“It’s one of those places where there are so many variables and so many things that can go wrong during your race that everything has to be absolutely perfect for you to even stay in the Top 5. If you have a perfect day, you might run fifth. It’s awesome when you can come away with a win like we did tonight.”

Gordon padded his NASCAR Winston Cup points lead by leading 199 laps and finishing third.

“We just got beat,” said Gordon, who added that he wanted to leave Bristol with a top-five finish. “Those guys were better on the long runs. We were pretty good for most of the race. I felt really good about it. We just needed more cautions. When we ran real long, my car got tight.”

Ricky Rudd, his closest pursuer, was fourth, while Dale Jarrett was sixth. Gordon now leads Rudd by 308 points with 12 races left. Jarrett is 379 points back of Gordon.

Harvick, bidding for his third victory in his rookie season – matching Stewart’s exploits two years ago – ended up .487 seconds behind Stewart. Harvick was bidding for a Bristol sweep after he won Friday night’s Food City 250 Busch Series race.

Rusty Wallace wound up fifth, getting passed by Rudd on the last lap. Steve Park was seventh, with Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin and Terry Labonte rounding out the Top 10.

Stewart’s season has been full of controversy. He was fined $10,000 and placed on probation for his actions here in March and he was fined again and had his probation extended after slapping a tape recorder out of a reporter’s hand and verbally accosting Winston Cup director Gary Nelson.

His on-track performance has been inconsistent. Stewart won at Richmond and at Sears Point earlier this year, but he’s also finished 23rd or lower nine times – including the last two races on the schedule, Michigan and Watkins Glen.

Coming back to Bristol, Stewart said he wasn’t thinking about what happened here in March.

“Why would I be?” Stewart said in response to a question about the Gordon incident. “There’s 43 guys that start the race every Sunday. You’re not going to get along with them 100 percent of the time. Bristol in the spring was Bristol in the spring. This is the fall race. It’s a whole different day. Forty-three professional drivers started tonight.”

Stewart’s night didn’t start very well. He complained of a brake problem early on, and you don’t want to race here without brakes. But almost as quickly as the problem developed, it was gone.

“The brake pedal would pulsate, and when you got on the brakes, it made a lot of noise,” Stewart said. “It happened twice, and it happened in Happy Hour, too. Finally, it just went away. I don’t know why it went away, but it went away and it never came back.”

Gordon was strong in the middle portions of the race, passing Rusty Wallace for the lead on Lap 216. Wallace beat Gordon out of the pits under the next two yellows, but Gordon slipped past Wallace soon after the green on both restarts.

Gordon led until Lap 353, when Stewart slid by on the inside. But a lap later, Todd Bodine spun to bring out the race’s 13th caution. It was lucky for Gordon , however, as his pit crew beat Stewart’s to back to the track first.

Stewart, however, was too strong. Harvick closed in after the two got by Gordon on Lap 432, but the gap between the two stayed fairly consistent.

“I had to use my car up a little bit, but he was just a little bit better than we were on the long runs,” Harvick said. “The run before, 50 or 60 laps into it, he came on pretty strong. It looked like he had a pretty good car the longer it went.

“Our only chance at the end was for him to get stacked up behind lapped cars and see what we could do with him. It wasn’t meant to be.”

Bristol is known for excitement and cautions, and there was plenty of both in the first half of the race. The yellow flag waved nine times in the first 150 laps, with the race not going more than 39 straight laps without a caution.

We never ran long enough early in the race to know what it was going to do,” Stewart said. “Our car never would really come on until 20 or 30 laps into a run. We couldn’t stay green that long. As the race kept going on, it seemed like the runs kept getting longer and longer and made our car’s performance show up a little more.

“The guys kept making adjustments on the car…with about 80 laps to go, that was the best the car was all night. It pretty much stayed there. The balance never really changed. I don’t think we lost any more than about four or five tenths over the last 80 laps.”

Overall, there were 16 caution flags for 92 laps.

The top five qualifiers all were involved in incidents early in the race. Pole winner Jeff Green went behind the wall to repair a busted radiator after hitting Joe Nemechek in a caution triggered by Brett Bodine and Johnny Benson on Lap 83.

Mike Skinner, who started second, was involved in two cautions – the second sending him to the infield after he was spun into the inside wall on the backstretch by Bodine. Third-place starter Ron Hornaday drifted back in the field early in the race and later had to make repairs after getting in the Bodine-Benson crash.

Elliott Sadler, who won here in March and qualified fourth this weekend, got a piece of the fifth caution triggered when fifth-place starter Ricky Rudd – who was leading – got squeezed by the lapped car of Mike Wallace and slowed, causing the field to bunch up behind him.

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