Atlanta Doesnt Dampen Spirits

Sunday's miserable weather in Atlanta was a bummer for fans who were forced to sit through several rain delays and ultimately witness a shortened NAPA 500. But for Tony Stewart, it was as if the skies were sunny and blue.

Stewart took a major step forward in his bid for a NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship by finishing a solid fourth at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac strengthened his point lead to a 146-point advantage over his nearest championship pursuer - Mark Martin.

Stewart started the race from the pole via his first place standing in car owner points after wet weather knocked out Friday's qualifying session. As more rain threatened, he quickly made his presence known by leading the first 19 laps - gaining five valuable bonus points along the way.

The dark clouds made good on their ominous presence, wetting the track and forcing NASCAR to display the caution on lap 18. All but one of the teams headed to pit road on the following circuit, with Stewart leading the pack.

As rain continued to fall, NASCAR was forced to put out the red flag on lap 26, halting the racing action for nearly two-and-a-half hours as track crews began the mind-numbing process of drying the racing surface. At roughly 3:30 p.m. EST, racing resumed - sort of.

As drivers began to roll off pit road, they did so under caution, with the next 19 laps being run behind the pace car to further dry portions of the track. During that time, Stewart pitted, forfeiting track position for security. As tire pressures were being checked shortly before the red flag was lifted, two loose lugnuts were discovered on the left front wheel. Taking no chances, crew chief Greg Zipadelli made the call to come to pit road and take four fresh tires. When the race restarted on lap 46, Stewart was mired in 27th position.

Over the next 30 or so laps, Stewart put on a display of driving talent and mechanical strength. He passed cars low, high and sometimes three-wide, cutting right through the middle. He passed at will, breaking into the top-10 on lap 80.

From that point on, Stewart never looked back. He cracked the top-five on lap 115 after passing Ryan Newman. Jamie McMurray was next in line, with Stewart taking fourth from him on lap 129. Ahead of Stewart were Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Joe Nemechek, and Stewart managed to pass all of them on laps 153, 162 and 188, respectively.

A scheduled green flag stop on lap 205 sent Stewart back to fourth, but third-place was regained on lap 214 at the expense of Gordon. Quick pit work on the team's final stop during a caution on lap 232 allowed Stewart to leapfrog Nemechek for second.

When the race restarted on lap 237, the top-five in the order was Busch, Stewart, Nemechek, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. On that restart, though, a heavy mist began to take the form of light rain. Nemechek made his way past Stewart for second on lap 240, and on the following lap, Jarrett took third. With Stewart in fourth and the rain becoming more persistent, NASCAR threw the caution for the final time on lap 243. Five laps later, the race was made official, with Busch taking his second straight Winston Cup victory.

"There still isn't anyone out there that can say I'm points racing," said Stewart after climbing from his car on pit road. "I had the Home Depot Pontiac sideways trying to chase Nemechek down. I could've cruised and just rode in, but I was going for the win today.

"We had that unfortunate deal with the lugnuts there at the beginning, but we found them on the red (flag) and we probably could've gone ahead and went because nobody caught it, but why take a chance? So we went to the back and drove to the front. Man, this thing was awesome today. Greg Zipadelli and all the guys on this Home Depot team, they did an awesome job."

"We definitely did what we needed to do here," added Zipadelli. "We had a great car all day. We had to give up track position, but to come from the back like we did showed just how strong we were today. And that's what our driver is. He was up on the wheel. I saw some stuff that made me nervous there in traffic, but Tony's our man. I couldn't be prouder of the team."

The Nov. 3 Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham is next up for The Home Depot Racing Team. It's the third to last race of the season, and if Stewart finishes ninth or better in the remaining three races, he will clinch his first Winston Cup championship regardless of the performance of any other driver. Live coverage from The Rock begins at 1 p.m. EST on TNT.

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