NEXTEL USG Sheetrock 400Final
Stewart ends drought with win at ChicagolandJul 16, 2007 - 2:23 AM By Bruce Martin
PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor
JOLIET, Illinois (Ticker) -- Tony Stewart was NASCAR's best driver who had yet to win a Nextel Cup race this season. He no longer holds that dubious distinction.
Stewart finally broke through with a decisive win in Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway after receiving a pep talk a day earlier from his team owner, Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.
"We had a football locker room meeting," said Stewart, referring to a heart-to-heart that also included his teammate Denny Hamlin following last week's episode at Daytona where the two drivers crashed each other.
"We had a good talk and it was a good way to get us on the same page so we can move on."
It was Stewart's 30th career victory and his first since winning at Texas on November 5, a span of 20 races. He won at Chicagoland for the second time, already owning a checkered flag from his 2004 victory at this 1 1/2-mile oval.
"I'm more overjoyed than anything to get the monkey off your back for one week," Stewart said. "This should have been the fourth or fifth time I've won one of these.
"Today was a very textbook day for us. We started 19th, worked our way to the top 10 and got a caution. We really got on the same page today with some ideas. We knew track position was real important."
Stewart pulled away late in the race but had to manage several restarts for some late-race cautions. But all that did was delay the inevitable, as Stewart won the race before performing his famous fence-climbing celebration at the start-finish line.
"I made sure I drank a lot of water on that cool-down lap because I knew it was going to be tough to climb that fence," Stewart said. "After you've been sitting down in a race car for 3 1/2 hours, the hardest thing to do is to get out and try to climb something. I just took it one step at a time. I wanted to make sure I didn't slip and fall."
Stewart's Chevrolet Monte Carlo defeated Matt Kenseth's Ford Fusion by 1.727 seconds. Carl Edwards' Ford was third, followed by two-time Chicagoland winner Kevin Harvick's Chevrolet. Pole-sitter Casey Mears rounded out the top five in a Chevrolet.
After Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his power steering fail while running third, Jimmie Johnson had an issue with his right-rear tire, sending his Chevrolet crashing into the wall on lap 222.
"That certainly knocked the wind out of me and I hit my elbow on the seat," Johnson said. "But I'm disappointed. We had such a great race car and I was trying to have something there for the 20 (Stewart). It's amazing when that tire blew how violent it was. I thought the drive shaft came out of the car it was so violent but it was just the right rear tire."
Earnhardt's team tried to replace a broken belt on the car but the power steering pump had seized during the pit stop under caution.
After seven more laps of caution, the green flag waved on lap 231 with Stewart in front of Kenseth and Kurt Busch. The green flag waved again with 18 laps to go and Stewart began top pull away from Kenseth.
But three laps later, Joe Nemechek's Chevrolet spun out off the fourth turn for another yellow flag.
There were 12 laps left when the green flag waved and Stewart once again tried to pull away from Kenseth. Edwards passed Harvick for third with nine to go as Stewart began to pull even further away from Kenseth.
"I got pretty close off Turn 2 and had quite a run on him," Kenseth said. "That would have been my one shot at him. We tried and finished second."
Stewart said that his car worked best on long runs, as did Kenseth's Ford. But at the end, he was able to have a car that worked best in the clean air of the lead.
"Awesome pit stops and got us track position when we needed it," said Stewart, who led five times for a race-high 108 laps. "We needed a long run. Our car was better after eight or 10 laps and that allowed Matt an opportunity to close in on us."
Jimmie Johnson led five times for 82 before his hard crash sent his car off the track on a flat-bed truck. The defending Nextel Cup champion also had to make the mandatory trip to the infield care center.
There were 20 lead changes among nine drivers, but most of those were artificial aided by green flag pit stops. The top cars for most of the race belonged to Stewart, Johnson and Harvick with Edwards coming through with a late challenge.
"I had a lot of fun," Edwards said. "I worked really hard today and did the best job I could do. Worked really hard and had some bad pit stops at the end. We thought the four tires would be enough to win the race at the end.
"We needed about 20 more laps for the tires to come in. I should have stayed to the high side of Matt. I did a slide job and that didn't work out."
Stewart's victory was worth $342,161 as he averaged 134.258 miles per hour in front of a sellout crowd of 80,000 fans.
But more importantly, it finally got him back into victory lane at a time of the season when it mattered the most.
"From my standpoint, when I have a car every week that can win, you know you can't have bad luck forever," Stewart said. "It goes in cycles it seems like.
"If it were a situation where we couldn't run up front or get in the top five again, then you would be worried about not winning races again. I haven't been freaking out about this."
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