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Rain keys Stewart's victory at Kmart 400

Posted: Monday, June 12, 2000

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- With Dale Earnhardt's black No. 3 race car looming in his rearview mirror late in Sunday's Kmart 400, Tony Stewart was doing a mental rain dance.

''I was just praying for rain,'' Stewart said.

His prayers were answered as the race was cut short by just over five laps with his Pontiac out front.

It was the second straight victory for last year's top NASCAR rookie, who has overcome a difficult start this season.

Stewart, who won the previous Sunday in Dover, Del., charged past Robert Pressley to take the lead on lap 185 of the scheduled 200-lap event on Michigan's 2-mile, high-banked oval.

As he drove toward the finish, with one eye on his mirror and another on the darkening skies, a three-way battle raged behind him for second, with Earnhardt passing Dale Jarrett and then holding off Bobby Labonte to take the runner-up spot.

NASCAR, which earlier red-flagged the race for 94 minutes after rain began falling on lap 150, put out the fourth yellow flag of the day on lap 192 when rain began falling again.

They brought the cars onto pit road and stopped them just short of completing lap 195 in hopes of waiting out the rain. But, less than five minutes later, with what was left of the crowd of 170,000 getting soaked again, the race was ended.

''I was just praying for rain,'' said Stewart, who knew anything could happen in a four-lap shootout with Earnhardt, Labonte and Jarrett.

''That would be a nerve wracking experience, probably worse than childbirth for women -- who knows?'' Stewart said with a grin.

Asked who he would have worried about the most if the race had resumed, Stewart said, ''I knew the (No.) 18 (Labonte) is not going to hurt me. He may go by me, but the 3 (Earnhardt) wouldn't have a problem roughing you up a little bit on the way by just to say hi, and he'd smile and laugh as he was doing it. I didn't really like seeing him back there at the end.''

But Earnhardt, who barely held off Labonte in the battle for second -- with the two bumping as they drove side-by-side through the fourth turn on the last green-flag lap, also seemed happy with the abbreviated finish.

''We still weren't quite as good as the 18 or the 20 (Stewart) at the end,'' said Earnhardt, who moved past Ward Burton into second place in the season standings, trailing Labonte by 98 points.

Burton, who finished sixth, right behind Pressley, fell to third, four points behind seven-time series champion Earnhardt.

Sunday's race was like three events in one.

Jeremy Mayfield was the class of the field as he led 85 of of the first 151 laps and held a lead of nearly seven seconds over Jarrett, who dominated this race in winning a year earlier.

His troubles began when all the leaders pitted under caution after the cars restarted. Mayfield was sent to the rear of the longest line for the green-flag restart as a penalty for having one of his worn tires bounce off a crewman onto pit road during his stop.

Mayfield's Ford, which restarted 13th, got all the way to sixth before his engine blew, bringing out another caution on lap 176.

''Something just broke,'' the disappointed Mayfield said. ''We know who had the best car here again.''

Meanwhile, Labonte, who won here last August, had taken charge after taking the lead from Jarrett on lap 157. He built a lead of more than two seconds over Stewart before Mayfield's engine blew.

The leaders pitted on lap 178, during the caution, and Labonte, Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, fell to sixth after his crew had trouble removing a lug nut on the right rear tire.

''I felt like we had the best car before the caution came out when Mayfield's car blew up,'' Labonte said. ''You can look at it two ways. I feel like we were lucky to get back to third.''

After that, Stewart, 29, who has five career victories, took charge.

During the final caution period, crew chief Greg Zipadelli kept reminding Stewart to be patient, but the driver said, ''I didn't think we had enough time to be patient.''

On the restart, Pressley, who got the lead by taking only two tires on his final pit stop, stayed low on the track and Stewart zoomed past, pulling Jarrett and Earnhardt along.

Stewart, who had led only once earlier in the race for three laps, stayed out front to the end.

After a lot of tough luck that kept him from winning early in the season, Stewart joins rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the only drivers with two victories this season. Stewart is also the first driver to win two in a row since he managed the feat late last season in Phoenix, Ariz., and Homestead, Fla.

Stewart, who averaged 143.926 mph in the race, said winning two straight ''is either impressive or lucky. The fact is we won. That's all we care about.''



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