Patience Puts Stewart In Lead

Patience and better judgment were Tony Stewart’s two best friends Sunday – that, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

All three were major contributors in Stewart’s second-place finish in the Winston Cup Series EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, a finish that helped vault Stewart into the lead in the championship standings for the first time ever in his Winston Cup career.

With six races remaining in the season, Stewart now leads Mark Martin by 72 points in the standings. Rookie Jimmie Johnson is third, 82 points behind Stewart.

It was by far the best finish Stewart has had on a superspeedway this season. Engine problems after only two laps relegated him to a last-place run at Daytona in February, and an accident in July left Stewart 39th at Daytona.

Earlier this season at Talladega, an accident left Stewart in 29th place. So, what was so different about the EA Sports 500 for the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot, who said his car wasn’t particularly at its best on Sunday?

For one thing, the race was run without one caution flag. For another, Stewart didn’t try to be hero in the final few laps and pass Earnhardt Jr. – the race winner – in an attempt to win his first superspeedway race.

With Earnhardt Jr.’s car clearly the best among the field, Stewart used discretion – and Earnhardt Jr. as a drafting partner, to finish second on a day when other championship contenders had major problems.

“Our car really wasn’t that strong today, to be honest,” Stewart said. “We had to rely on
help from behind to keep our momentum up. But, once we would get our momentum, we could really help a guy in front of us. That’s the way it’s always been for Junior and I. If I can get back there I can normally help him out pretty good.

“I told my spotter to go down there and tell his spotter that I wasn’t leaving him (Earnhardt Jr.) It wasn’t ‘Top Gun,’ but I wasn’t leaving my ‘wing man.’ There’s something about that Budweiser Chevy and The Home Depot Pontiac. You get those two cars together on a superspeedway, and if we don’t have problems we can help him out a lot.

“I’ll tell you, I’m real proud of myself today, more than anything. It’s no secret that I’ve hated restrictor plate racing. My mindset this whole weekend has been calm. I told Zippy (crew chief Greg Zippadelli) yesterday after an hour and a half of ‘Happy Hour’ practice, I didn't cuss anybody to myself, I wasn’t screaming, 'I hate restrictor plate racing.' I just did my job and that’s what I did all day today. There were a couple times that I got a little discouraged because I couldn’t stay closed up with the pack. Zippy said, ‘Hey, just start trying some things to see what you’ve got to do late in the race,’ and we did and we started working our way back to the front and it got my confidence back up. It’s like I told him after that race was over, I’ve never given up on him, yet, in any race and I’m not going to give up on him now.”

Earnhardt Jr. won his third straight race at Talladega Superspeedway, and none of the drivers behind him – least of all Stewart – ever attempted to get out of line to make a move on Junior at the end.

For Stewart, it turned out to be a very smart decision. Draft with Junior and you know you’re going to get a good finish.

Otherwise, the “big wreck” that never happened on Sunday might have happened at that time.

“I never even tried,” Stewart said. “I never thought about trying to go by Junior. It’s a trust-thing that he and I have. I know that if I’m leading the race that he has always stuck with me, and he knows that anytime I’ve been behind him like that late in a race that I’ve always stuck with him. It gives him a feeling of security and it gives me a sense of security knowing that he is going to take care of me on the front side. All I’ve got to worry about are the guys behind me.

“To be honest, I never saw anything in front of me that last lap. I looked coming off of two and I looked coming off of four and that was it - the only time I looked in front of me. The rest of the time I was mirror-driving, just making sure that they weren't doing something behind us to get a run on both of us that would hurt both Junior and I.”

And for his patience and discretion, Stewart was rewarded handsomely Sunday. He moved up two positions in the standings and is looking like the favorite to be at the head table in New York at the post-season awards ceremony in December.

The two leaders in the championship standings coming into Sunday’s race had a bizarre afternoon. On one of the final pace laps, the steering on Mark Martin’s car locked up, and he careened down into Jimmie Johnson’s Chevy.

Both suffered damage to their cars and had to pit, leaving them at least one lap down without even five laps being run. Johnson, trying to become the first rookie ever to win the championship, wound up finishing 37th, while Martin wound up finishing 30th.

The circuit is heading to some of Stewart’s better tracks for the stretch run – Charlotte, Martinsville, Atlanta, Rockingham, Phoenix and Homestead.

With all of the problems Stewart has faced this season – on and off the track – what a buffer a championship would be for him.

“I’m just as excited as can be (to be in the points lead),” Stewart said. “Home Depot and Joe Gibbs Racing and Greg Zipadelli and these guys have deserved, probably more so than I have. These guys keep working. They work hard. We’ve got one of the hardest working teams in Winston Cup racing and they deserve this lead right now.

”This is for Bob Nardelli (CEO, Home Depot) and all the people at Home Depot and their 280,000 associates right now. These people have stuck with us through thick and thin. It’s just a great day. We had an awesome day. Our goal today wasn’t to leave here leading. It was to come and basically just survive today. You never know what is going to happen at these places.

“Does it mean a lot to me to be leading right now? It means a lot from my team standpoint. I’ve led points championships before. The day I want to be leading is the Sunday at Homestead. That is the day I want to be leading. There is a lot of racing to go on still. Six races is a lot of racing. For us, it’s a matter of racing hard these next six races. I feel like we’ve got a couple places coming up where we’ve got a shot at winning. I’ve got a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum going into the last six races of the season now, and we’ll just do the best we can see what happens.”

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