Threes A Charm For Stewart

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LAS VEGAS - Tony Stewart rebounded impressively from his 26th place finish two weeks ago at Rockingham, finishing a strong third in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The stellar drive saw Stewart lead four times for a total of 45 laps, and together with his second-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, the 2002 series champion is now second in points, 88 markers behind defending series champion Matt Kenseth.

"There's a little bit of weight lifted from this team's shoulders now," said Stewart. "This was a real important race because we wanted to rebound from our run at Rockingham. We needed to know whether there was something missing in our package or if we just had a bad race at Rockingham. It gives us some confidence knowing that in the three races run this year we've finished in the top-three twice, and that we just had a weird day at Rockingham. After a good day in Vegas, it gives us a lot to look forward to at Atlanta, because we normally go really fast there, too."

While 500 miles at Atlanta await Stewart and Co. in just six days, their 400-mile performance at Las Vegas demands further attention.

Stewart started the 267-lap contest 19th in the 43-car field, but by lap 12 he had cracked the top-10 after passing his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte. Stewart then put on a clinic on his way to the front, passing Bill Elliott for ninth on lap 14, rookie Brendan Gaughan for eighth on lap 15, Kevin Harvick for seventh on lap 19, Jamie McMurray for sixth on lap 22, Jeremy Mayfield for fifth on lap 23, rookie Brian Vickers for fourth on lap 28, and Kurt Busch for third on lap 32. In 21 laps Stewart gained seven positions, with his sights set on second-place Jimmie Johnson and first-place Kasey Kahne.

With a caution on lap 38, the entire field headed to pit road. Stewart took four new tires and a full tank of fuel in less than 15 seconds, holding steady at third. Johnson, meanwhile, made contact with Kevin Lepage on pit road, damaging the right front corner of his Chevrolet. When the race restarted on lap 45, it was Kahne on the point with Busch in second.

Stewart passed Busch for second on lap 51 and quickly gained on Kahne. Stewart passed the rookie driver three laps later and never relinquished the lead until another round of pit stops while under caution on lap 88. When the pit stops cycled through, it was Stewart at the front of the field. When the green flag dropped on lap 92, Stewart surged ahead. But tight on his tire tracks was Kenseth, last year's winner of the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400. Kenseth swept past Stewart through the frontstretch of the 1.5-mile oval on lap 94, taking the lead in convincing fashion. "I can't run that fast," said Stewart over the radio.

Stewart's Home Depot Chevrolet stayed within Kenseth's rearview mirror, and after an incredibly quick four-tire change while under caution on lap 168, Stewart was back in the lead. But the time up front was short-lived, as Kenseth flexed his muscles right at the lap 172 restart, passing Stewart handily off turn two.

"No one was going to touch Matt Kenseth today," said Stewart. "He'd get to you and there was nothing you could do about it. He was just the class of the field."

Setting up the end of the race was the penultimate round of pit stops during a caution on lap 192. Everyone took four tires and fuel, with Harvick emerging as the leader after a bad pit stop put Kenseth in seventh. When the caution flag flew again on lap 200, the leaders again headed to pit road, with Harvick remaining the leader, but Kenseth picking up three spots to climb to fourth.

Kenseth was a lock for the lead, which he took on lap 230. Harvick, meanwhile, was falling into the clutches of third-place Stewart. The two drivers raced hard for position, but perhaps too hard for Stewart, who had to let Harvick go after abusing his tires. That let Kahne catch Stewart with five laps to go, putting Stewart in fourth momentarily, as seconds later Harvick slowed dramatically as his #29 Chevrolet ran out of fuel.

When the checkered flag dropped, the winner and second-place were a repeat of the Rockingham race, with Kenseth the victor and Kahne in second. Stewart crossed the stripe in third, trailed by McMurray and Mark Martin.

"The tire that Goodyear brought here has made this racing fun again," said Stewart. "You can't go out and just run real hard. That's how we lost second (place) to Kasey Kahne there. I busted the tires off trying to get by Harvick. If I'd known he was going to run out of gas I'd have taken it a little easier."

The strong runs by Kenseth and Stewart showed in the point standings. The two drivers are now 1-2 in the points after former leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., experienced a disastrous day. His ill-handling race car put him 71 laps down, good for a 35th place finish.

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