Tue, Jun 28, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Stewart wins in Sonoma

AP , SONOMA, CALIFORNIAAP, CLEVELAND, OHIOAP, LAMIA, GREECE

Tony Stewart celebrates after winning the Dodge/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Nextel Cup at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Tony Stewart has set some pretty high standards for himself.

That's why the former series champion appeared as much relieved as pleased with his first victory in nearly a year.

"For our whole Joe Gibbs Racing organization, this is a big win," Stewart said. "We're definitely not out of deep water, yet, but we're going in the right direction."

Sounds like the words of a driver who has been struggling mightily to get his season going.

Instead, the victory in Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway was Stewart's eighth top 10 finish in 16 starts in 2005 and moved him from sixth to fourth in the standings, just 198 points behind new NASCAR Nextel Cup leader Greg Biffle.

But this victory didn't come easily.

With the fourth gear gone and third gear going in his No. 20 Chevrolet with 30 laps remaining, 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 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.

"I was just holding [the gearshift] with one hand in the end stages," Stewart said. "That was getting tough, especially when you're trying to pass Ricky Rudd."

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 moved toward the leaders. He took second place on lap 85, still trailing Rudd by 2.7 seconds -- about half the main straightaway.

It was only a matter of time, though, as Stewart closed in. Rudd did his best to block Stewart, holding him off for a while, but the 2002 Cup champion 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."

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.

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