Stewart wins at Daytona

Posted: Sunday, July 03, 2005


  Tony Stewart raises his arms after climbing the fence to the flag stand, in celebration of his win in the NASCAR Pepsi 400 on Saturday, July 2, 2005, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. AP Photo/Glenn Smith

Tony Stewart raises his arms after climbing the fence to the flag stand, in celebration of his win in the NASCAR Pepsi 400 on Saturday, July 2, 2005, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.

AP Photo/Glenn Smith

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — After numerous frustrating finishes, Tony Stewart finally won at NASCAR's most famous track.

Stewart dominated the rain-delayed Pepsi 400 on Saturday night, but still needed a dramatic four-wide pass to move to the front, then pulled away on a restart with nine laps left to seal his first Nextel Cup victory in 14 starts at Daytona International Speedway.

The only thing that could top this would be winning the Daytona 500 or a race — any race — at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But Stewart will settle for this for now, and celebrated by climbing the fence into the flag stand to claim the checkered flag.

''I'm too damn fat to be climbing fences, but I had to do it once,'' Stewart said. ''I finally got me a Daytona trophy.''

It was his second consecutive victory and showed that the 2002 series champion will be a contender again this year. He started from the pole, led a race-record 151 of 160 laps, and moved to third in the standings.

Jamie McMurray finished second and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was far from the dominating driver he has been here in recent years. But the finish was encouraging for Junior, who is stuck in a season-long slump, but matched his best finish of the year — here in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Rusty Wallace was fourth in his final scheduled start at Daytona, followed by Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson reclaimed the top spot in the standings after dropping behind Greg Biffle last week. Biffle was involved in an early accident, wound up 36th, and fell to second in the standings.

Jeff Gordon, winner of four of the last five restrictor-plate races — including two consecutive at Daytona — was never a factor and finished seventh.

Stewart was running away with the race until a late round of pit stops shuffled him back to fifth with 17 laps to go. It took him just minutes to regain the lead and he did it with the most daring of moves: He tucked in next to the wall and slid on the outside past Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Johnson, who were all lined up door-to-door across the track.

Stewart's pass would have been enough to seal the victory, if not for one last caution. The race restarted with nine laps to go, and Stewart was never challenged as he pulled away.

''Nobody knows how much this means,'' crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. ''We got the short end of the stick here plenty of times.''

Stewart was the Daytona 500 favorite in 2002, when he won two of the three races leading up to the season opener. But his engine blew on the second lap, and Stewart was already home in North Carolina when the race ended.

He was good again in 2004, but not strong enough at the end. Instead of racing for the win, he ended up pushing buddy Earnhardt across the finish line and settled for a second-place finish.

That made it so much more frustrating this February, when Stewart led a race-high 107 laps and seemed headed to his breakthrough win. But when it came time to find a drafting partner, Junior hung him out to dry and Stewart drifted back to a disappointing seventh-place finish.

So to finally break through at Daytona was a relief for Stewart. Sure, the summer race doesn't come close to rivaling the Daytona 500 in significance. And Stewart is the first to admit a win in Indianapolis — in either NASCAR or an open wheel car — would make his career.

Earnhardt knew Stewart would savor the win.

''I'm glad he got to experience what it's like to have a car dominate as he did,'' Earnhardt said. ''It's a lot of fun when you have these kinds of cars.''

The race was delayed by rain for just over 2 1/2 hours, and when NASCAR did start it, the cars ran the first 11 laps under caution in an effort to dry every last spot on the track. So when the field finally went green, it was almost three hours after the scheduled start.

If the drivers were anxious, they didn't show it during an uneventful first 55 miles. But when it came time to pit for fuel, things got exciting.

Gordon waved in his mirror to alert the field he was heading in, but it appeared only McMurray saw the signal. McMurray slowed behind him, but Scott Riggs didn't from his spot two cars back. Riggs ran into the back of McMurray, forcing Mark Martin to use some defensive driving to avoid the wreck.

Instead, he ended up smack in the middle of a nine-car pileup when his car bounced off the wall and into cars trying to avoid Riggs.

Martin, retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season, could only watch in disgust as his crumpled car was towed off the track. He went home 0-for-41 at the historic track.

''It looked like to me that someone took (Riggs) by surprise by pitting,'' Martin said. ''Riggs chose to slam the brakes on and take a right turn into me.''

Riggs said he had no idea Gordon or McMurray were slowing.

Patrick's first pole leads 1-2-3 start for Rahal Letterman

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Danica Patrick has another first on her short Indy Racing League resume.

The 23-year-old rookie won her first IRL pole Saturday at Kansas Speedway, becoming the second woman to take the top spot.

Patrick, the first woman to lead a lap at the Indianapolis 500, turned in a quick lap of 214.688 mph on her second try around the 1 1/2-mile tri-oval in qualifying for Sunday's Argent Mortgage Indy 300. Sarah Fisher was the first female pole-sitter, starting first at a race in 2002 in Kentucky.

With two teammates qualifying second and third, Patrick's chances of earning her first IRL victory are even better.

''It's very satisfying,'' said Patrick, who edged out Rahal Letterman teammate Buddy Rice for the pole. ''I'm very proud of how hard this team has worked, how hard I've worked. I'm just proud of the whole situation for this team.''

Patrick, making her eighth career start, was fastest in her morning practice session, too. Her pole-winning time drew a big cheer from the capacity crowd waiting for the start of a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race.

Her best previous start was second at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan in April.

''This is not untouched territory,'' Patrick said. ''What's going to make the difference is going out tomorrow and staying up there and competing with my teammates who did such a great job last year.''

In May, Patrick finished fourth at the Indianapolis 500, the best finish by a woman in the 89-year history of the race, and her second fourth in the IRL series.

''I know a lot of this started because I'm a chick in a race car,'' Patrick said. ''Now it's turning into, 'Look what this rookie can do.'''

Rice, last year's race champion, will start on the outside front after qualifying at 214.65 mph. Vitor Meira was third at 214.548 mph, followed in the top 10 by Tomas Scheckter, Darren Manning, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Scott Sharp and Sam Hornish Jr.

This year's Indy 500 winner and the current points leader, Dan Wheldon, qualified 13th.

''The car has been very slow since we rolled it off the truck, and we really don't know why,'' said Wheldon, who has won four of seven events this year. ''We just don't have an answer for it. Right now, I've got a lot of people in front of me that are going to be difficult to beat.''

Helio Castroneves, who won last week at Richmond, Va., qualified 14th.

''We tried a number of things in practice,'' he said. ''We just couldn't find what we needed.''

Last year, Rice won the pole and then held off Meira by .0051 seconds to win the second-closest race in IRL history.

It was the first 1-2-3 qualifying by one team since Scheckter, Rice and Eddie Cheever did it at Michigan in 2002 for Eddie Cheever Red Bull Racing.

''We'll just have to see,'' Rice said. ''But all three cars qualified strongly, they've been strong all day, and there's no reason we shouldn't all three be running up front and going for a finish like last year.''

Patrick agreed — to a point.

''That's the plan is that the three of us will hopefully take off and, you know, tow each other out to a country mile lead, and then we don't have to worry about anybody,'' she said. ''In a perfect world, that's what would happen.

''But it's not going to happen like that. There are going to be twists and turns in the race. There'll be yellow flags and fuel strategy and changes within the car as the race goes on. So it's definitely helpful to have friends around, but at the end of the day we're all trying to individually win the race.''

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