Stewart Finds Trouble Again

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FT. WORTH, Tex. - After leading twice for 45 laps and making his presence in the top-10 known during much of Sunday's Samsung/RadioShack 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart's day ended in a blaze, sans the glory.

On lap 297 while in eighth, the engine in Stewart's No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet grenaded, sending flames up through the shifter boot and into the cockpit. Stewart maintained control and brought his smoldering ride to the backstretch apron of the 1.5-mile oval as quickly as possible, extricating himself once the car came to a stop.

Track safety crews were immediately on the scene, helping Stewart from his car before transporting him to the HCA Infield Medical Center. There, Stewart was treated for first-degree burns on the lower back of his right thigh and right elbow. The area on his thigh was about the size of a fist, and the area on his elbow was about half that size and akin to a severe sunburn.

Stewart was treated and released from the care center in good condition.

The abrupt end to Stewart's day came without warning. The Home Depot Chevrolet, while not perfect, was a top-five contender.

After coming from his 10th place starting spot to first by lap 40 and pulling out a lead of almost two seconds by lap 50, changing weather conditions brought the field back to Stewart.

As the Texas sky grew cloudy in the last half of the 334-lap race, what was once a Home Depot Chevrolet that was solidly planted to the track's 24 degrees of banking became a shy introvert, unsure of its footing as it skated through the corners.

Bouncing between being too tight through the corners to being too loose, crew chief Greg Zipadelli was forced to chase the handling characteristics of the #20 chassis.

But thanks to a series of quick pit stops by The Home Depot over-the-wall crew and tenacious driving by Stewart, the 2002 series champion rallied to fourth following a restart on lap 280.

Yet moments after the green flag dropped, the evil handling ways of the No. 20 machine returned.

"This car is too aero-sensitive," said Stewart over the radio. "I've been driving it for 290 laps so I know what I'm talking about."

Stewart steadily dropped in the running order, but only to a point. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch got by on lap 287 to put Stewart in sixth, and after a spirited battle with Jimmie Johnson from lap 287 to 293, Stewart finally relinquished seventh. He held that spot until lap 294, when Rusty Wallace took the position to put Stewart down in eighth.

Despite the downward spiral, a top-10 seemed to be in the offing. Unfortunately it was not to be, for on lap 297, the engine blew up.

"It just let go without any warning," said Stewart after leaving the care center. "There wasn't a vibration or anything. It just went."

The resulting 31st place finish was Stewart's worst of this still young 2005 season. But it dropped Stewart out of the top-10 in points for the first time since Dover (Del.) in September of 2003 - a span of 52 consecutive weeks - breaking what had been the longest active streak of drivers within the top-10 in points. Stewart is now 11th in the championship point standings, four points out of the top-10 and 293 points arrears series leader Jimmie Johnson.

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