Not So Home Sweet Home
August 5, 2003 | 12:00 A.M. EST
It was the third time this season that Stewart has led the most laps in a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race, yet in each of those races - California, Chicagoland and Indy - Stewart was not the man celebrating in victory lane.
In the 10th annual Brickyard 400, that honor instead went to pole winner Kevin Harvick, who like 41 other competitors, had to watch as Stewart dominated the first 100 laps of the 160-lap contest.
Stewart marched his way from his 15th starting place to first by lap 26 with relative ease. The only hiccup in his charge to the front was a popping sound emanating from his engine, but upon switching to his backup ignition box, all was well on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet.
Stewart's first stint at the point lasted nine laps, as a series of green flag pit stops on lap 35 disrupted his lead. But once his fellow drivers were finished with their scheduled rounds of service, Stewart was again at the helm by lap 51. He paced the next 31 laps, opening up a lead of over two seconds over nearest pursuer Ryan Newman. The only thing stopping Stewart from leading any more laps was the need for four fresh tires and fuel, which he received during another scheduled green flag stop on lap 82. His challengers followed suit, and again upon the cycling of everyone's pit stops, Stewart was leading once more. For the next 20 circuits - from lap 87 to 106 - the orange and black colors of the #20 machine paced the field.
But the color yellow disrupted that lead when the caution flag waved on lap 106. Stewart brought the field onto pit road, but a slow four-tire pit stop for Stewart while other teams made quick two tire stops meant Stewart returned to the track in seventh when the race restarted on lap 109.
The loss of track position proved of little matter, as one by one Stewart picked off those ahead of him. By lap 119 he was third, eyeing second-place Matt Kenseth and first-place Jamie McMurray. But with the race looking as if it might be determined by fuel mileage, the #20 team opted to short-pit while under green on lap 131. If the race went green the rest of the way, Stewart could reach the checkered flag without pitting.
The pit stop was a quick one, as only right side tires and fuel were added. But the change in strategy also changed Stewart's car, as it became so tight that he keyed the radio to say that he was "plowing the fence down."
An ill-timed caution appeared on lap 140, dousing the short-pit strategy employed by crew chief Greg Zipadelli, as now anyone who was in jeopardy of running out of fuel had the opportunity to fill up and go the rest of the distance. Complicating the matter was Stewart's ill-handling race car. If an extra pit stop was made, would the loss in track position be offset by the gain from fresh rubber? Stewart and Zipadelli debated, with the decision finally being made to come to pit road. Left side tires were changed and a chassis adjustment was made, with Stewart returning to the track in 12th.
A six-car melee shortly after the lap 144 restart propelled Stewart to 10th, where he stayed when the race went green for a final 10-lap dash on lap 150. But with lapped cars having pulled up alongside lead lap cars as the field came to green, it mired Stewart amongst the slower traffic. With The Home Depot Chevrolet still pushing through the corners, Stewart lost two spots to Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer, respectively. The resulting 12th place finish was certainly disappointing, as it matched last year's finish where Stewart led four times for 43 laps.
"Right now it's just a severe disappointment for all of us," said team owner Joe Gibbs. "We came here with a great race car and finished 12th. We got all caught up in fuel mileage toward the end there. We felt we had to do the things we did and it just didn't work out for us.
"If there's one race track Tony really wants to win at, it's here. I thought we had a great chance today and I think he did too. It's a big heartbreak."
"I could write a book on the five years that I've been racing here," added Zipadelli. "It seems like we can put together good cars and do everything, and then we get cautions when we don't need them. We had a bad pit stop that pretty much got us behind. It's just frustrating. There's no secret to any of it. We did what we thought was right at the time and it didn't work out."
While disappointed with the finish, it did bump Stewart up one spot in the championship point standings to 13th, albeit 732 markers arrears series leader Kenseth.