Stewart Snakebitten

It was another strong run, but unfortunately, another disappointment for Tony Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team.

Stewart led three times for 68 laps during the first quarter of Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, distancing himself from his nearest competitors with a lead of almost four seconds. Stewart clearly had the dominant car, but in what has become far too common as of late, the dominance was short-lived.

While leading on lap 122, Stewart radioed to crew chief Greg Zipadelli that "we've got a problem." Soon after Stewart spoke, the orange and black Home Depot Chevrolet began to fall off the pace.

A reprieve of sorts came via a caution on lap 128 when Jeremy Mayfield struck the turn two wall. Stewart quickly came to pit road where Zipadelli and crew set about a diagnosis.

The hood went up and crew members peered in. Was it a valve spring? A rocker arm? A burnt piston? Three trips to pit road were made during the caution period and still no answers were provided.

When the race restarted on lap 134 Stewart's problems continued. Underpowered, he rode around the 1.5-mile oval and was soon lapped by leader Matt Kenseth. Worried that his engine would fail altogether, Stewart brought The Home Depot Chevrolet into the garage area on lap 157.

Further evaluation called for an inspection of the valve train and a change of spark plugs. Once completed, Stewart returned to the race track, 31 laps down.

"I don't know what happened," said Zipadelli. "All we did was pull the valve covers off and we looked at everything. We put four new plugs in it, checked everything, put it back out and it was just hauling again.

"It was just a very disappointing night. It looked like a spark plug, but until we get home and put it back on the dyno and check it, we're not going to find anything. It's basically California all over again. We pretty much led every lap that we ran there, and we led pretty much all that we could lead here tonight, but we ended up getting bit both times.

"It's hard to stay upbeat, but we're going to Pocono (Pa.) this week to test, and then we'll head to Dover (Del.) and hopefully we can put a hurtin' on them up there."

When rain rolled in and mercifully ended the race on lap 276 - essentially making it the Coca-Cola 414 - Stewart was credited with 40th. It was his third straight finish of 40th or worse, and the result dropped him further in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings to 20th, 569 points arrears leader Kenseth.

Jimmie Johnson won the rain-shortened event to score his fourth career Winston Cup victory. Following him to the line were Kenseth, Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, Jimmy Spencer and Ryan Newman.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the June 1 MBNA America 400 at Dover International Speedway. Live coverage by FX begins at 1 p.m. EDT.

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