Good Day Goes Bad

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Tony Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet was the dominant car in Sunday's Advance Auto Parts 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway, as it led four times for a race-high 247 laps. But all those laps at the front of the field went for naught when a broken wheel on the 431st circuit around the .526-mile oval spoiled the picture perfect performance. And after leading almost half of the 500-lap race, Stewart had to settle for 26th in the final rundown, seven laps off the pace set by race winner Jeff Gordon.

"I can't even describe it right now," said a calm but extremely disappointed Stewart. "I guess the thing I'm proud of is that I'm handling it the way I'm handling it. It's like I told the guys on the radio and again after I got out of the car - we have a lot to be proud of. And when the disappointment goes away, we're going to have a lot of good things to be happy about and look forward to.

"This was the best car we've ever had here at Martinsville. We can't change how the day went. It's all over with. But the thing that's going to be different tomorrow is the fact that we had a great car, in fact, the best car here. Everybody knows who had the best car here today. There wasn't anybody who was going to beat us. Jeff Gordon got the trophy, but he wasn't going to beat us. We had the best car. All you have to do is get the lap times. They could run with us for 15 or 18 laps, but we always drove away. That's the positive thing that we ought to take away from today.

"It's not as good as that grandfather clock," continued Stewart, alluding to the unique trophy presented to Martinsville race winners. "We're all frustrated about the finish, and that's because we're all competitive. But we rallied around each other in the trailer after the race was over. We're strong, we're a team and we're leaving here with our heads up high. I'm leaving here excited knowing how we ran today."

Despite the heartbreaking result, the pride that stemmed from Stewart's strong drive was well warranted. The Home Depot Chevy pilot started seventh, and with the help of solid pit work, methodically picked off cars en route to the point. He cracked the top-five on lap 50 and passed Kevin Harvick for fourth on lap 80. Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace were next up for Stewart, but he jettisoned both those drivers in a single pass off turn four on lap 94. Riding in second with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte in the lead, Stewart patiently waited for an opportunity. It came on lap 116, with Stewart taking the lead via a considerate pass of Labonte. The orange and black attack was on, with Stewart leading laps 117-120, 134-183, 185-203 and 225-389.

The wheels literally came off Stewart's impressive run following a botched pit stop while under caution on lap 389. The tire change on the right front was slow, and in the hurried seconds to get the job done, some lugs were left loose.

The loose lugs weren't yet known, but the slow stop dropped Stewart to fourth.

When the race went green on lap 395, a strong vibration began pulsing through the #20's steering wheel. It took a while to develop, but by lap 424 Stewart knew something was awry. "Are all the wheels tight?" asked Stewart on the radio. The answer back to Stewart was yes, but the real answer came on lap 431, when the right front wheel broke away.

With sparks flying from the remnants of the right front wheel housing, Stewart limped to the pits. Numerous stops were made in an effort to fix the damage and keep Stewart on the lead lap. Despite the valiant effort of The Home Depot crew, extensive repairs were needed while the race continued under green. Seven laps were lost as the leaders motored on, with Stewart falling back to 26th as the race edged toward its conclusion.

"I'm just mad that it happened," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli. "But hey, we're all human, we all make mistakes. Nobody did anything intentionally. The pressure is on them to do the best they can and get us out of the pits fast. We'd been coming in and leaving in the lead all day long. We expect nothing less. We feel we have the best people in this garage area and we all need to stand up and do our jobs and do it right. It's just that simple."

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