BROOKLYN, Mich. -- There was no victory to celebrate Sunday,
but Tony Stewart was pretty pleased with his fifth-place finish at
Michigan International Speedway.
Stewart came into the GFS Marketplace 400 as the hottest driver
in NASCAR's top stock car series since Jeff Gordon won six of seven
races in 1998. Stewart had won five of the previous six Nextel Cup
events and his run on Sunday runs his string of finishes in the top
seven to eight straight races.
It certainly wasn't an easy day, with Stewart starting 36th in
the 43-car field and, like many of the other competitors, dealing
with engine overheating from a radiator grill blocked with debris
several times in the race.
He managed to get up to second late in the race, trailing
then-leader Carl Edwards before both of them and most of the other
top drivers had to make late gas stops. Jeremy Mayfield won the
race by running the final 52 laps on a single tank of gas and Scott
Riggs finished second with the same strategy.
"A top-five finish for the Home Depot team is good," he said. "That's why we're smiling. We got up to second, which made me real
proud, but I couldn't stay there at the end with all the pit
Asked about losing his shot at another win because the race
turned into a fuel economy run, Stewart shrugged.
"It's part of racing," he said. "It is kind of frustrating to
a certain degree, but, at the same time, we all could have got fuel
like everybody else did. And it worked for two guys. But, for us,
we lost three spots. Still, you can smile when you leave her with a
top five finish."
The 2002 series champion came into the race 105 points ahead of
Jimmie Johnson, Sunday's 10th-place finisher -- in the season
standings. Stewart now heads to Bristol, Tenn., for next Saturday night's race 126 ahead.
Stewart and Johnson are the only drivers who have clinched spots
in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup that begins after the
next three events.
It was another difficult day for four-time
series champion Jeff Gordon, who is trying desperately to earn a
spot in the Chase.
Gordon, who has struggled with bad cars and bad luck since
winning three of the first nine races this season, managed a
15th-place finish Sunday despite what he called "a terrible car."
"It was horrible," Gordon said. "It's embarrassing, you know?
And I don't know what we've got to do. We've got to find something
because we've tried everything and it's not working."
Sunday wasn't a total loss for Gordon, though. He moved up from
13th to 12th in the points and trails 10th-place Jamie McMurray by
58 points in the battle for the final spot in NASCAR's playoffs
with three races remaining.
Best yet for Riggs
The runner-up finish for Scott Riggs was the best
of his two years in the Cup Series and came at a time when there is
a big question mark over where he will race after this year.
Riggs could re-sign with MBV racing, which brought him to
NASCAR's top series, but there are also reports he will follow
current sponsor Valvoline to Evernham Motorsports, joining current
Evernham drivers Mayfield and Kasey Kahne in 2006.
"What, what I can tell you right now is that nothing is in
stone yet," Riggs said after Sunday's race. "I'm sure that things
will be happening pretty quick here the next week or two. But this
run doesn't dictate what's going to happen for me next year.
"This run just helps all the guys with their morale and keeping
their chins up and knowing we're going the right kind of things
that we need to do. It doesn't affect next year."
The efforts by NASCAR and Goodyear to try to cut
down on the tire problems that have plagued the Nextel Cup Series
this season didn't seem to work very well on Sunday.
One of the worst races for tires was in June at MIS, with
several blowouts and lots of extreme wear, particularly on the
right side tires. Goodyear decided to confront the problem this
weekend by bringing a harder right side tire.
Another problem this year has been the teams experimenting with
air pressures and the angle of the tires, both of which have caused
extra wear and blowouts.
NASCAR took a step last week, restricting the camber angle of
the tires. Then, Sunday, NASCAR inspectors checked the air
pressures prior to the start of the race in an effort to monitor
Crew chiefs were told of the air pressure check during the
drivers' meeting, about two hours before the race. David Hoots,
NASCAR's managing events director, said once the tires were checked
by the inspectors the teams would not be allowed to reset the air
pressures until the first pit stop.
Hoots said the information gleaned by NASCAR would be kept
confidential but would be used to evaluate performance and
considered if any car encounters tire problems.
But, despite the precautions, there are at least half a dozen
flats during the race.
Goodyear spokesperson Carol Swartz said the company's tire
engineers chalked up most of the problems Sunday to punctures.
"It doesn't look like any big tire problem," Swartz said.
"The engineers say the wear was good and there was no excessive
heat problem. There were a lot of cuts and some deflation, just a
lot of odd little things."