Reversal Of Fortune

With his No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet sporting a reversed paint scheme, Tony Stewart reversed his fortunes of late with a strong fourth-place finish in Saturday night's Chevy American Revolution 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway. It was Stewart's first top-10 finish since scoring an eighth-place result at Texas four races ago.

Stewart started the 400-lap affair from the 28th position, and in his typical Richmond fashion, began driving toward the front. The five-time Richmond race winner - three in Nextel Cup and two in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series - cracked the top-20 on lap 28 and the top-15 by lap 68. When the second caution of the night fell on lap 102 for a Jeff Green spin in turn two, Stewart and the rest of the field headed to pit road for scheduled service. Four tires and a full tank of fuel later, Stewart restarted in ninth on lap 107.

Despite a rash of cautions that slowed his forward progress, Stewart entered the top-five following a restart on lap 143. He passed Jeff Gordon for fourth on lap 146 and then made his way past Dale Earnhardt Jr., for third on lap 164.

With all of the cautions - three between laps 122 and 152 - some drivers pitted while other stayed out in favor of track position. Stewart was amongst the latter, but was forced to pit when another caution came out on lap 170, as he had to stay in sync with the rest of his competitors in terms of fuel mileage. With other drivers having already pitted during previous cautions, only a handful of drivers - mostly the leaders - pitted with Stewart. The result was Stewart restarting in the 15th spot when the race returned to green on lap 175.

It was of little matter though, as Stewart put his fresh Goodyears to work, knifing through the field to slip into third before another caution came out on lap 203. When the race restarted on lap 211, Stewart's march to the lead began. He passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte for second on lap 213, and after doggedly pursuing first-place Michael Waltrip, grabbed the point on lap 251. Stewart steadily drove away, holding a commanding lead as the race's only series of green flag pit stops began with a Dale Jarrett stop on lap 278. Ten laps later, Stewart came to pit road for his service, relinquishing the lead to Earnhardt. But once the series of stops was complete, it was the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet at the front of the field. From laps 325 to 345, Stewart paced the field before another caution came out on lap 344.

To pit or not to pit was now the question. Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli agreed that they needed four tires to be competitive to the end. Earnhardt, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson rolled the dice and opted not to pit, favoring track position over fresh rubber. As a result, the lap 355 restart had Earnhardt in first, Johnson in second, Gordon in third, Stewart in fourth and Labonte in fifth.

All raced hard, including Stewart, who got loose in turn three while going to the inside of Gordon on lap 359. Both drivers got a bit out of shape, with Labonte seizing the opportunity to grab third. Stewart held onto fourth, while Kenseth slipped by Gordon to take fifth.

"We got a little loose there and I got into Jeff (Gordon)," said Stewart. "I had a top-three night going until I ran into the པ' car and I know he's mad at me. I just got down into turn three and got loose. We made a change there at the end and that's probably what made it loose - not to mention all that oil dry down there. When I got there I just got loose and got into him."

As the race wound down, the field strung out. Earnhardt crossed the stripe uncontested for his third win of the season and the 12th of his career. And with plenty of space between them, Johnson, Labonte, Stewart and Kenseth rounded out the top-five.

The finish solidified Earnhardt's hold on the point lead, as he now has a 40-point advantage over second-place Johnson. For Stewart, his fourth-place effort bumped him up three positions in the championship point standings. The Home Depot driver now stands fifth, 194 points arrears Earnhardt and 68 markers behind fourth-place Kenseth. Sixth-place Newman, however, is only seven points away from Stewart.

"I'm pretty happy," said Stewart. "Zippy (crew chief Zipadelli) has been sick for two days. You could barely understand him on the radio. I had a migraine right before happy hour yesterday and I told him that's why we get paid the money we do. There are no substitutions. There is nobody who can do his job. There is nobody who can do my job for him. We both got up on the wheel today. He was a trooper up on the stand and kept working on the car. I'm just really happy."

The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the May 22 NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge at Charlotte (N.C.). Live coverage of the non-points race begins at 9 p.m. EDT on FX.

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