Stewart Fuels Around

BROOKLYN, MICH. - Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team found themselves in another fuel mileage race in the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway. But unlike recent fuel mileage races where Stewart and Co. felt like odd men out, they were definitely in at Michigan.

Stewart lasted the final 52 laps on a single tank of fuel to take third-place, but that still didn't make the reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion happy.

"I'm getting sick of all this fuel mileage racing," said Stewart. "If we're going to finish third, then I want to do it by passing cars. I don't want to do it by fuel mileage. We were good at the beginning of the race, and luckily we did a good job with the fuel mileage. The engine shop did a great job of helping us get the fuel mileage we needed."

Those not getting the fuel mileage they needed were Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, who as Stewart was running fifth with less than 10 laps to go, had to peel onto pit road for a splash of fuel. They forfeited their top-five status, allowing Stewart to earn his best finish since he came home second at Chicagoland, six races ago.

Stewart started the 200-lap race from 23rd, showing his strength early by cracking the top-10 on lap 31. Eight laps later, he was in the top-five, with his eyes set on those ahead of him. He took fourth from Robby Gordon on lap 40, then nabbed third from Ryan Newman on lap 49. A round of pit stops while under caution on lap 55 brought Stewart to second, but his stay in the runner-up spot proved to be short-lived.

"I'm a little bit loose on the get-go," radioed Stewart to crew chief Greg Zipadelli as he fell back to fifth.

When another caution came out on lap 77, Stewart again came to pit road, but this time for two tires and fuel. But the rear tire change was a tick slow, which resulted in Stewart returning to the two-mile oval in 21st position. That setback proved to be a minor one for Stewart, who managed his way into the top-10 on lap 87.

But now the fuel mileage game was on, with teams deciding when to pit and for how long by calling for either four-tire or two-tire pit stops.

When the #20 team came to pit road during another caution on lap 90, they went for four tires while other teams took two. That put Stewart in 16th, but with over 100 laps still remaining, there was plenty of time to make up the lost ground if the race stayed green.

But changing track conditions changed the handle on Stewart's machine. More pit stops were made as the race inched closer toward its conclusion, with Stewart going back and forth from the top-five to outside the top-20 with each trip to pit road.

With four fresh tires from a lap 135 pit stop, Stewart utilized the last caution of the day to make a fuel only stop during the day's final caution on lap 148. When the race restarted on lap 149, Stewart was 27th. If the race went green all the way to the finish, it was surmised that Stewart would run out of gas as he took the checkered flag.

Others would not be so lucky.

As Stewart marched to the front for the umpteenth time, thirstier race cars began to hit pit road, aiding Stewart's ascension. Augmented by his tenacious drive, Stewart was fifth with 10 to go. When Johnson and then Busch stopping for fuel, all Stewart had to do was keep rookie Greg Biffle in his rear view mirror.

The third-place finish allowed Stewart to maintain his 11th spot in the championship point standings. Sixty-two points separate Stewart from cracking the top-10, while a far more daunting 717 points separate Stewart from series leader Matt Kenseth.

Nabbing his fifth win of the season was Newman, who wound up leading three times for 32 laps. He now has two more wins than any other driver on the circuit in 2003. Following Newman in second was Kevin Harvick, while Stewart, Biffle and Steve Park rounded out the top-five.

Point leader Kenseth extended his lead in the standings to a whopping 329 points over his nearest pursuer - Dale Earnhardt Jr. - and an even more impressive 461 points over third-place Jeff Gordon. Kenseth's ninth-place finish - his 18th top-10 of the season - combined with Earnhardt's 32nd place finish and Gordon's 30th place finish, allowed Kenseth his largest point margin in the 20 weeks he's been atop the standings.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the Aug. 23 Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, a race which Stewart won in 2001. Live coverage by TNT begins at 7:30 p.m. EDT.

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