Solid Day For Stewart
June 17, 2003 | 12:41 A.M. EST
Stewart started the 200-lap affair from the outside of row one, flanked by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, who scored his 24th career pole in Friday's qualifying session.
But it wasn't Labonte who led the first lap. It was Stewart, who went on to lead the first 19 laps before trading the point momentarily with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Stewart regained the top spot one lap later, and paced the field for another eight laps.
On his tail were the Dodges of Sterling Marlin and Ryan Newman. The three drivers swapped the lead six times over the next 10 laps before Newman's engine exploded down the backstretch. That brought out the caution flag, and everyone headed to pit road.
When the race restarted on lap 47, it was Stewart in second with Marlin in first. That didn't last long, however, as the Home Depot Chevrolet quickly dispensed with Marlin upon exiting turn two. But when Steve Park spun on the very same lap, the caution waved yet again.
No one pitted, for only one lap had been run under green. When the race restarted on lap 51, Stewart held the point. He paced the next eight laps until exchanging the lead with Marlin on lap 59, who enjoyed an unimpeded drive for all of 10 laps before Stewart once again asserted himself as the leader. But another caution came out on lap 72, again sending the field to pit road for another round of scheduled service.
Stewart emerged from the pits in third, with Marlin and Kurt Busch ahead of him. When green flag racing resumed, Stewart made his way to second, diving to the inside of Busch through the tri-oval on lap 81. From there, Stewart gave chase to Marlin, who seemed to get stronger as the race wore on.
"We beat him in (turns) one and two and he beats us in (turns) three and four," said Stewart of Marlin. "I'm tight in the center of the corner right to where I get back in the gas."
With no on-track incidents to bring out the caution, green flag pit stops began on lap 120. First to pit road was Marlin, with Stewart inheriting the lead briefly before his own green flag stop. With four fresh tires, a track bar adjustment and a full tank of fuel, Stewart returned to the track in third.
That's where Stewart stayed until a caution on lap 158 brought the field back to pit road. Stewart's stop was a tick slow, and it dropped him to fifth when the race restarted on lap 162.
Holding steady in fifth, the #20 machine was now too loose, a point evidenced on lap 169 when after passing the lapped car of Greg Biffle, the rear end of The Home Depot Chevrolet twitched toward the outside wall. Stewart made a quick save, but it backed up those running behind him, with Ricky Craven punting Biffle into the infield grass.
The yellow was displayed once more, with Stewart staying out to preserve his track position. But after being passed by Rusty Wallace for sixth when racing resumed, Stewart knew his car was just too loose for him to stay in the top-10.
A reprieve came via another caution on lap 179, allowing Stewart to come to pit road and make changes. Crew members lowered the track bar one-and-a-half rounds and made an air pressure adjustment, sending Stewart back onto the race track in 13th when the race restarted on lap 182.
By lap 190, Stewart had clawed his way to sixth, but the race's final caution on lap 192 stalled Stewart's momentum. The four laps it took for track crews to clean up the debris from Todd Bodine's Ford meant that only five laps remained. Jumbled with lapped traffic, Stewart lost two spots to Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt, relegating Stewart to eighth when the checkered flag waved.
"We weren't good enough to stay where we were," said Stewart just before exiting the garage area. "We stayed up there because we had good track position. At first we were too tight, but then we made a change at the end with about 40 laps to go and took a car that was reasonable - just a little bit tight - and made it really loose. Lapped traffic didn't help our cause either."
Despite being disappointed with the outcome, the eighth-place result was Stewart's third straight top-10 finish. And while series point leader Matt Kenseth opened the gap a little bit more between him and Stewart to 553 points, Stewart actually closed the distance between him and the top-10. Tenth-place Mark Martin lies just 18 points ahead of Stewart, while the distance between Stewart and fifth-place Busch is 211 points.
And it was Busch who won the Sirius 400, logging his third victory of the season to become the winningest driver thus far in 2003. Following Busch to the line in second was Labonte, while Jeff Gordon, Kenseth and Waltrip rounded out the top-five.
The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the June 22 Dodge/Save Mart 350k at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Live coverage by FOX begins at 4 p.m. EDT.