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Stewart takes Sonoma one-handed

Posted: Monday, June 27, 2005

SONOMA, Calif. — Tony Stewart found his way back to Victory Lane — and he did it with one hand.

With fourth gear gone and third gear going in his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet late in Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup Dodge/Save Mart 350, Stewart held his car in gear with one hand and steered with the other as he caught and passed Ricky Rudd for the lead and the win.

The former series champion took the lead at Infineon Raceway when pole winner and race favorite Jeff Gordon faltered with his own transmission trouble. It was Stewart's first victory since last August at Watkins Glen International, the only other road circuit on the Cup schedule.

This one was in doubt nearly to the end, though.

''I was just holding (the gearshift) with one hand in the end stages,'' Stewart said, grinning.

Several cars, including those driven by veterans Rusty Wallace and Rudd, had pitted only a handful of laps before and stayed on the track when Stewart made his final stop under the seventh of eight cautions in the race. Stewart restarted 14th on lap 73 of the 110-lap event.

As Rudd, whose last Cup win came here in June 2002 — beating Stewart — caught and passed Wallace for the lead on lap 83, Stewart steadily shot toward the leaders. He moved into second place on lap 85, still trailing the leader by 2.7 seconds — about half the main straightaway.

It was only a matter of time, though, as Stewart, who had three second-place finishes this season before finally breaking into the win column, closed in. His No. 20 Chevy finally got past Rudd's No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford with an inside move on the final turn — a slow, hairpin right-hander — on lap 100.

Rudd got one more shot at the leader when the caution flag waved on lap 103 because of debris on the track. But Stewart shot away on the restart on lap 106 and went on to win by 2.266-seconds, about 20 car lengths.

Rudd barely held off reigning Cup champion Kurt Busch for second before running out of gas just past the finish line. Wallace finished fourth, followed by Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler.

The victory was the 20th of Stewart's career, his fourth in 13 starts on road courses and his second on Infineon's picturesque 1.99-mile, 11-turn circuit.

Rudd, whose best previous finish this season was seventh at Martinsville, said the strategy call by crew chief Michael ''Fatback'' McSwain, made the difference.

''Fatback had some really smart strategy and that got us track position,'' Rudd said. ''But we expected more cautions. You could see the intensity level picking up and guys not being as kind to each other as they had been earlier.

''I didn't know if we'd have enough fuel or not. We ran out going up the hill after the checkered flag. You couldn't have planned it any more perfect.''

As for trying to hold off Stewart, Rudd shrugged.

''I knew Tony was fast,'' he said. ''I was just trying to hold him off the best I could and, obviously, we weren't able to do it. He kept coming and coming, inching up and inching up. It was just a matter of time. Then I started to make mistakes. We had nothing for Tony there at the end.''

Transmission problems spoiled the day for three of the four Hendrick Motorsports entries Sunday, with Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, who started alongside Gordon in the front row, and Brian Vickers all slowed by linkage troubles.

Johnson wound up 36th and, combined with Greg Biffle's 14th-place finish, his bad day cost him the series lead that he had held since the fourth race of the season at Atlanta. Biffle now leads by 22 points heading into next Saturday night's race at Daytona.

Gordon, NASCAR's career leader on road courses with eight victories, appeared on the way to his fifth win at Infineon, leading the first 32 laps before slowing suddenly and giving up the top spot to Stewart.

The four-time series champion had hoped getting to a road course would end his recent problems that had seen him finish 30th or worse in four of the last five races, but the broken transmission relegated Gordon to 33rd place on Sunday.

Stewart, who started seventh, had worked his way up to second and was pushing Gordon hard before the leader slowed. From that point to the end, the 2002 Cup champion was easily the fastest car on the track, leading three times for 39 laps.

''That was really too bad for Jeff and his guys,'' Stewart said. ''We both had real good cars and it would have been fun to race him for the win.''



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