Stewart Takes Title Step

Tony Stewart wasn’t victorious Sunday’s Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway, but he was indeed a big winner.

By finishing runner-up to Ricky Rudd, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac took advantage of Sterling Marlin’s misfortune in a big way. He gained a whopping 141 points on Marlin Sunday and moved into fifth place in the standings, just 88 points behind Marlin.

In fact, Stewart is only 26 points behind second place Mark Martin with 17 of 36 races in the books.

Ever since he arrived on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series scene 3 ½ years ago, Stewart has been touted as a championship contender. In years past he’s fallen way behind early on only to make a strong run at the end of the season, and while he did that in 2002 as well, Stewart has rebounded to put himself in prime contention heading into the second half of the campaign.

“Today (Sunday) is what we needed,” said Stewart, who won the road course race at Infineon Raceway last year. “We never wish bad luck on anybody, but the 40 (Marlin), the 24 (Jeff Gordon), the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) and the 17 (Matt Kenseth) – they all had trouble. That helped us a lot. We gained a lot of points.

“A second place is what this team needed. Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing has been working their guts out to get us caught up from the deficit we’ve been at this year, so (Sunday) is a reward for these guys. They’ve worked really hard. They deserve it.”

Stewart’s 2002 season has had its ups and downs, to say the least.

Engine problems on the second lap of the Daytona 500 relegated him to a last place finish in the season opener, putting Stewart in an immediate hole in the standings. By the fourth race of the season, however, he had worked his way back up to fifth in the points, following a victory at Atlanta.

An accident and a 36th-place finish the next week at Darlington, however, pushed him back to 12th in the points, but he made up four spots in two weeks with consecutive top-five runs at Texas and Martinsville.

Once again, however, the No. 20 Pontiac team was beset by problems the following two weeks, as consecutive 29th-place runs at Talladega and California put him back to 10th in the standings.

The last six races, Stewart hasn’t finished worse than 16th, including a victory in the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond International Raceway in early May.
Sunday at Infineon Raceway, Stewart felt as if he had the car to beat, but was frustrated with other drivers who wouldn’t give an inch on out the road course, despite having an inferior car.

Stewart said he’ll remember that when the circuit travels to Watkins Glen for the second and final road course event of the season, in August.

“I can promise you one thing – the next time we go to a road course, I’m going to haul it off in there, and if a guy moves over, I’m gone,” Stewart said. “I’m going to brake like I’m going to brake and that’s it. I’m tired of these guys blocking. Drivers are doing at every racetrack we go to these days and it’s getting frustrating.

“If they want to go to Indy car racing and block, go Indy car racing. This is a stock car series and if a guy gets a run on you and has done a good job getting a run on you, it’s your job to do a better job the next lap and try to figure out what he got a run on you instead of blocking. Hopefully, that is going to change. If not, we’re going to change it.”

The Winston Cup Series takes a week off before heading to Daytona International Speedway for the July 6 Pepsi 400. There’s nothing Stewart would like better than for his team to redeem itself for the February fiasco at Daytona.

“He’d also like to get a little redemption for himself after last year’s Pepsi 400, when he had one of the best cars on the track but was, in his eyes, wrongly penalized for going below the yellow line. He was relegated to a 26th-place finish in that event.

“Hopefully today (Sunday) will give us our second wind,” Stewart said. “We’ve been behind and we’ve not been running the way that we wanted to run. But, these guys never quit working, trying to get us where we need to be. Hopefully, it does give us new life right now.”

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