Stewart ends slump with strong finish

Sunday, July 2, 2006
NASCAR driver Tony Stewart held the checkered flag as he celebrated after winning the Pepsi 400 auto race in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Saturday. (Associated Press)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart's slump is over, his shoulder is fine and his fence-climbing is as good as ever.

Stewart proved that by charging into the lead with two laps to go at Daytona International Speedway to win his second consecutive Pepsi 400 on Saturday night.

This one was nothing like last year, when he rolled to a dominating victory in which he led all but nine laps. Instead, he had to earn it after two late cautions nearly yanked the win away from him.

Stewart, who led 85 of the 160 laps, was out front when Jimmie Johnson bumped into Bobby Labonte with 14 laps to go to bring out just the fourth caution in what had been an unusually calm race. It set up one final round of pit stops, and Stewart dropped all the way back to 10th on the restart.

Boris Said, the surprising pole-sitter, didn't pit and inherited the lead. But he kept a nervous eye on his rearview mirror, all too aware of Stewart's bright orange No. 20 Chevrolet closing in on his bumper.

Stewart jumped all the way to second in one sweeping move on the low side of the track, and was preparing to pass Said when a wreck behind him brought out the fifth caution. It gave him time to figure his strategy, which was to sit back and let Said jump out to a huge lead on the restart with three laps to go.

It left Said without any drafting help, and Stewart used a full steam of drafting help to pass him on the outside with two to go.

He was in the lead when the race was stopped on the final lap for a debris caution, earning his second win of the season and ending a slump that began six races ago when he broke his shoulder blade in an accident in Charlotte, N.C.

Stewart had finishes of 42nd, 25th, third, 41st and 28th since the accident, and dropped from fourth to seventh in the standings. The victory pushed him back up to fifth.

"This team needed this," he said in Victory Lane. "We've had two really rough weeks the last couple of weeks."

Stewart celebrated the win with his trademark climbing of the fence. He made it all the way to the top, grabbed the checkered flag, then jumped into the crowd below him in what quickly turned into a joyous mosh pit.

But when he tried to get back to his car, the crowd wouldn't let him. His crew had to join several safety officials to help clear a path to the nearest gate.

Stewart didn't mind.

"It's so cool -- that's the best thing in the world, to climb up that fence and get to that flag stand," Stewart said. "I made the mistake of going down the ladder; I thought there was a gate there. I didn't find the gate and was in the mosh pit for a while."

Kyle Busch finished second, his older brother, Kurt, was third and the two were disappointed not to get a chance to team together to chase Stewart down on the final lap.

"I would have done anything Kyle needed me to do for him to go to Victory Lane," Kurt said.

"What a brother," Kyle replied.

"It takes two to pass Tony," Kurt added.

Said, running in just his second race of the year, wound up an impressive fourth and was thrilled with the outcome.

"I just feel like Rocky Balboa in the 15th round, and I just won," he said.

Elliott Sadler finished fifth and was followed by Matt Kenseth, Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

Johnson, the points leader, was running in fourth when he wrecked with Labonte. It cost him a shot at his third restrictor-plate victory of the season, and he wound up 32nd. His lead was sliced to eight points over Kenseth.

Carl Edwards was penalized after the race for not slowing on the final caution, which dropped him to 39th.

Jeff Gordon, who was trying to tie the late Dale Earnhardt with 11 plate victories, was among the contenders all night until he was caught in the final accident. The five-car wreck occurred when rookie J.J. Yeley and Greg Biffle made contact, and Gordon was caught in the carnage.

He finished 40th and dropped all the way to 12th in the standings.

"There were so many guys out there, and I want to bad mouth every one of them," Gordon said. "But I'm not going to. If I don't have anything nice to say, I shouldn't say anything at all."

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