Stewart Rises To Fifth In Points

Tony Stewart overcame his 21st-place qualifying effort and a couple of lengthy pit stops to finish fourth in Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500k NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. The top-five result was Stewart’s 11th this season and his sixth in 12 career NEXTEL Cup races at Phoenix.

“We got a good top-five out of today and I’m very happy with that, and I’m very happy for all of those guys, and most of all for Greg Zipadelli. He’s the one most responsible for today,” said Stewart, who struggled to get comfortable behind the wheel of his No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet in practice on Friday and Saturday. “We made a huge, wholesale change yesterday after happy hour (final practice) and that’s why we’re the longest crew chief/driver combination in NEXTEL Cup. We have trust in each other, and when he told me what he was going to do, I knew to trust it.”

Stewart quickly rallied from his 21st-place starting spot and cracked the top-10 before 40 laps had been run in the 312-lap race. His Home Depot Chevrolet wasn’t perfect, but with Zipadelli’s fine-tuning and Stewart’s tenacity, the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing machine got better with each pit stop.

But some of those pit stops were lengthier than they needed to be, and they negated the gains made on the racetrack.

“You can’t pass 80 cars and expect to win the race,” Stewart said. “We got ourselves in such a bind there that we had to run too hard, and then we wore the tires out, and then when you get in a situation where you need to play strategy, you can’t do the right things because you’ve got to make up the time you lost on pit road.

“But we still got ourselves in position there at the end, and the good thing is that these guys don’t quit. They never give up, even after a couple of bad stops. There at the end, they were really good with a couple of two-tire stops that didn’t lose us any more track position. That’s all you can ask for.

“We had a good car. Again, I’m really, really proud of Greg Zipadelli. He made a huge change yesterday after happy hour. Our car, it wasn’t even a top-10 car, but with those changes, here we were running up front with a shot to win the race.”

As the race wound to a close, Stewart was a top-five mainstay, climbing to as high as second before dropping to fourth after the team’s final, two-tire pit stop on lap 274.

Jimmie Johnson was behind Stewart, and he eventually charged past and into the lead on lap 289. But Stewart held off others behind him, and then picked off Johnny Sauter on lap 277 to regain fourth. While third-place Matt Kenseth was in Stewart’s sights, he also had to keep an eye on the cars of Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., who covered Stewart’s rear-view mirror. The group raced hard right to the checkered flag, with Stewart holding on to fourth.

“We’ve had some squirrelly weeks the last couple of races,” said Stewart, referring to his last three races where his best finish was 11th, “but to look on the board and see us in fourth is not bad by any means.”

The fourth-place finish bumped Stewart up one spot to fifth in points. With only one race remaining, the two-time NEXTEL Cup champion is 66 points ahead of sixth-place Kenseth and only 16 points behind fourth-place and future JGR driver Kyle Busch. A much more daunting 403 points separates Stewart from Johnson, the championship point leader.

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