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NASCAR Stewart dominates at Pepsi 400



Published: Sun, July 3, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



He led all but nine of the 160 laps at the Daytona International Speedway.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Tony Stewart climbed from his car, started scaling the fence and didn't stop until he reached the top. The unusual celebration capped an extraordinary night at Daytona International Speedway.

Stewart knew it, all his rivals did, and so did anyone else who stayed up to watch one of the most dominating NASCAR performances in recent years.

He was never challenged in Saturday's rain-delayed Pepsi 400, which ended almost six hours after its scheduled start. Stewart led all but nine of the 160 laps -- a race record that not even an Earnhardt has been able to top.

"This was a night that won't happen for a very, very, very long time," Stewart said.

"To have a car that is that good to where you can hold off every challenge that came to us. That's something hard to do.

"When you have a night like that, I guess that is why I was so emotional about it when I got out of the car and climbed the flag stand. You just don't have nights like that very often."

Only lost lead at pit stops

He started from the pole and lost the lead only after pit stops, allowing him to break the record of 142 laps led set by Cale Yarborough in 1968.

Stewart won his second straight race, the first time a driver from Joe Gibbs Racing has won two in a row, and the victory moved him to third in the series points standings. He's now 136 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and in better shape at this point of the season than he won his only title in 2002.

"I feel like we're in a better position and better mode than we were then," he said.

No other driver could touch Stewart from the time the race began, 21/2-hours after its scheduled start.

He pulled out to a comfortable lead and said he never had to worry about the cars behind him. Stewart only had to focus on the open road in front of him.

Earnhardt Jr. third

As third-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. was mapping out a plan to beat him, Stewart had already used a dramatic four-wide pass to seal his victory.

"I thought the only way to beat him was to get out in front of him before he got to the front," Earnhardt said. "By the time that thought even entered my mind, he was already leading."

Stewart dropped back to fifth after the final round of pit stops with 16 laps to go.

Reclaimed lead final time

But he reclaimed it one lap later 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.

"I had a feeling that he wasn't going to waste much time," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli. "That's one thing that Tony's good at -- he just goes for the opportunity. There was an opening, he had a run."

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.

That's when he settled on his celebration, which sent him to the top of the flag stand to grab the checkered flag. It was a nod to open-wheel star Helio Castroneves, who famously celebrated his two Indianapolis 500 victories by climbing the fence at the Brickyard.

"I'm way too old and too fat to be doing that," he said after.

"But once I started, I was committed and I wasn't going to let the fans down. But I think I'm unofficially the first guy that's gone all the way to the top and over and onto the flag stand.

"So Castroneves has some work to do now."

Actually, so does Stewart.

As much as a Daytona win means to him, it's not really the race he wants.

It's not even the race track he wants.

Stewart would trade this summer victory for a win in the Daytona 500, a race that has been cruel to him the past few years.

He was the favorite in 2002, but his engine blew up on the second lap.

He was strong in 2004, but ended up pushing Earnhardt to the win.

And in February, when it looked like it was finally his turn, Earnhardt didn't return the favor and Stewart faded back to a seventh-place finish.




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