Stewart In Drivers Seat
November 11, 2002 | 11:50 A.M. EST
Stewart finished eighth in Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500k at Phoenix International Raceway, while his only championship challenger - Mark Martin - finished fourth. And despite losing 23 points to Martin, lowering Stewart's lead to 89 markers, Stewart heads into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway needing only a 22nd place finish to clinch his first Winston Cup title.
"I don't want to even talk about it," said Stewart, when told of his magic number for Homestead. "I think we can win the race at Homestead next week, and that's the way I want to finish my year out. But I'm not going to talk about the championship."
Stewart started the 312-lap race from the 16th spot, and slowly began working his way toward the front, cracking the top-10 on lap 46. He made his way past Elliott Sadler for ninth on lap 62, before passing the duo of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch for seventh on lap 79.
But even with the forward progress, Stewart's Home Depot Pontiac was too tight for his liking. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli went to work on the team's second pit stop of the day, removing a round of wedge from the left rear of the car.
Quick pit work on the lap 118 stop allowed Stewart to climb one spot to sixth, a position Stewart would hold until lap 190. There he began a duel with Dave Blaney, as the two raced side-by-side and bumper-to-bumper before Stewart regained the position five laps later.
By lap 200, Stewart had made his way to fifth, jettisoning Sadler to sixth. Ahead of him - from first to fourth - were Busch, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Martin.
Stewart hung in at fifth before making his fourth pit stop of the day under green on lap 224. In an effort to slightly loosen Stewart's ride, a half round of wedge was added to the right rear. Shortly thereafter, Stewart radioed that the change might have been too much. "I'm a little too free," said Stewart, as The Home Depot pilot dropped to seventh on lap 242.
Seeking to reverse the chassis adjustment, Stewart made his fifth and final stop while under caution on lap 259. Stewart returned to the one-mile oval in sixth when the race restarted on lap 264. But 10 laps later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pressuring Stewart, taking the position on lap 274. Three laps later, Blaney dropped Stewart to eighth. Said Stewart as Blaney's yellow Ford drove away from him, "I'm every bit as tight as I was at the beginning of the race with this set of tires."
Stewart held steady at eighth, keeping ninth-place Dale Jarrett comfortably in his rearview mirror until the checkered flag waved.
"We had a great car," said Stewart. "We did the best we could with what we had. The second run from the end there we got a set of tires that really freed the car up. We went and came back on the next pit stop, put the changes back, put another set of tires on, and got a little bit too tight.
"But we made some big changes yesterday. We didn't have as good a car yesterday as we had today, so I'm really proud of the guys. We made a big change on the car and it responded. It was a lot better race car today."
"We had a much better car than that," reiterated Zipadelli. "We kind of progressed through the day to have a good, top-five car. But that one stop we put a set of tires on it and the thing was so loose that we dropped all the way back to seventh or eighth. The caution came out - probably a good thing - and we had to tighten it up because we didn't know what the circumstances were. We just couldn't take a chance. Sure enough, at the end the car was the tightest it had been all day. We just got thrown for a curve a little bit toward the end. We ran better all day than where we finished."