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Stewart is the Rain Man
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Most teams focus on fuel mileage when the schedule turns to Michigan, but as the race wore on, all eyes turned to the weather and who would be up front when the rain fell.
In a role usually reserved for Jeff Burton, a late thunderstorm gave Tony Stewart his second victory of the year at the rain delayed and shortened KMART 400 in Brooklyn, Michigan. Stewart and his Gibbs Racing owned #20 Home Depot Pontiac was leading the race when it was brought under caution and then red flagged because of a downpour with 6 laps to go. After 10 minutes of rain, the race was called giving Stewart his second victory in as many weeks. Rounding out the top 5 were Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Robert Pressley.
At the drop of the green flag, pole sitter Bobby Labonte led the cars deep into turn 1, but Ricky Rudd's Yates powered Ford fought back to lead the first lap starting from the outside pole. Labonte and Rudd would swap the lead 8 times in the first 14 laps as each struggled to command the field. On lap 16 the first of four caution flags few when Bobby Hamilton and the #4 Kodak Film Chevrolet lost control and struck the wall hard in turn 4.
When the pits opened, the entire field came in for service. Rusty Wallace, Kenny Irwin and Robert Pressley traded rubber for track position by taking on only two tires while everyone else took four. When the race resumed, Wallace would lead for only 3 laps before Rudd powered around him to handily lead the next 31 laps.
Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon were both running strong when early mishaps cost them a lap. Elliot pitted on lap 46 for a four-tire change due to a flat and Gordon pitted on lap 86 when he equalized a right front tire. Elliot would make up the lap and finish 8th, while Gordon finished in 14th a lap off the pace.
But the quickest cars were still working their way through the field, Jeremy Mayfield and the Penske powered #12 Mobil One Ford Taurus was fast. Starting from the 21st grid, Mayfield cruised to the lead on lap 55 and led 73 laps before an engine failure sidelined him at lap 176. Stewart's car also stuck wherever he placed it, starting in 28th position, he worked his way to the front on lap 66 and was in the top 5 for the remainder of the race.
Jeremy Mayfield was leading the race when rain brought out the second caution flag of the day. The rain brought a 1 hour and 33 minute rain delay to dry the track, changing the handling of the track and any thoughts of late race fuel mileage mastery.
Once the rain delay ended, the pits were opened for what was hoped to be the final stop of the day. But Mayfield and Jeff Burton both had trouble. Mayfield incurred a tire violation when the right rear tire bounced off the gas can man as the tire was being rolled back to the pit wall, to make matters worse, Mayfield had also lost 3rd gear and would have to report to the end of the longest line due to his infraction. Jeff Burton penalized for speeding down pit road and was also sent to the back of the pack.
When the green waved Dale Jarrett had his Yates Quality Care Ford kept the lead for only 3 laps before Bobby Labonte wrestled it away from him on lap 157. While Tony Stewart was firmly planted in the top five, Jeremy Mayfield was motoring through the field in his quest for a victory. He had climbed all the way to 5th place when his engine expired in a plume of smoke on lap 176, bringing out the 3rd caution of the day.
Once again, Robert Pressley and the #77 Jasper Engines Ford Taurus took only two tires, and this time they were rewarded with the lead as everyone cycled through a four tire change. But the two new tires weren't enough to keep Stewart from overtaking the lead on lap 185. With Stewart, Pressley and Earnhardt, it was Pontiac, Ford and Chevrolet running 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the Motor City, NASCAR couldn't have planned it any better if they had written a script. With just a few laps to go Stewart was pulling away when Kyle Petty lost an engine on lap 187, but Kyle kept it low, and no yellow. But then on lap 190 the final caution flag flew as Geoff Bodine and the Power Team Chevy spun and nailed the wall at the start finish line, coming to a rest at the exit of pit road.
Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace pitted for what was hoped to be a five-lap single file shootout, but it wasn't to be as the caution turned to red when the second downpour started. NASCAR called the race official shortly afterwards, giving Stewart the victory.
After the race, an exuberant Stewart was questioned on "Who he was more worried about seeing in his rear view mirror if the race was going to be restarted with five laps to go, Bobby LaBonte or Dale Earnhardt"; this is what he had to say…"The black 3 for sure, I know the 18 is not going to hurt me, he might go by me, but the 3 wouldn't have a problem roughing me up a little bit on the way by just to say hi, and he would smile and laugh as he was doing it, so, I didn't like seeing him back there at the end, I am just glad it is over."
The black flag that was flying over Tony Stewart's team earlier this year seems to have been changed to a black and white checkered flag. Plagued by a number of early season distractions, Stewart has vaulted to 7th place in the Winston Cups points and is within striking distance to the top. If this is Tony's idea of a sophomore slump, I hate to see what happens when everything falls just right.
All photos courtesy MSI
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