Newman notches his 3rd win
of '03 with Chicagoland run
Winner dismisses Stewart's post-race theory
By DAVID POOLE
The Charlotte Observer
JOLIET, Ill. - There was talk following Ryan Newman's victory in the Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday about what might have been.
Tony Stewart felt that if he'd had more green-flag laps on the final run, he might have been able to catch Newman and regain control of a race he'd dominated early.
Kevin Harvick, meanwhile, undoubtedly would have liked to known if he could have become the first driver to win the first three races held at a track had he not run out of gas with less than three laps to go.
Sorry, Newman said, but none of it would have made any difference.
"Regardless, I think we could have stayed out in front," said Newman, who led the final 58 laps in his No. 12 Dodge to join Kurt Busch as a three-time race winner for the season. Nobody else has won more than once in the season's first 18 races.
"I was pacing myself, trying to keep my distance without abusing my race car," Newman said. "It was shoulda, woulda, coulda for Tony, he just wasn't in the right place at the right time.
"And I know Kevin runs really hard. But with three laps to go there's no way he was going to make up 10 car lengths and go around me unless something huge happened."
That, in Newman's view, was pretty much that. Newman had the lead and the clean air that had allowed the race leader to pull away from his closest challengers all day long. Even though the consensus at day's end was that the racing groove widened considerably in this 1.5-track's third year of hosting NASCAR's top series, the preferred line around the bottom of the track was still plenty fast enough for Newman to earn his fourth career Cup triumph.
Even though Newman did win, the "something huge" he talked about nearly happened on Lap 215 when Bobby Labonte's Chevrolet caught fire when it backed into the wall and had its fuel cell erupt during a seven-car crash.
Labonte allowed his car to roll down the banking to the apron and immediately began scrambling out of the cockpit. He squeezed out just as track safety crews arrived.
"I'm fine," he said after the scary incident. "I smell like a barbecue pit, but I'm OK."
Stewart, Labonte's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, started from the pole and was the garage area's prerace pick as favorite in the No. 20 Monte Carlo. He did nothing early on to contradict that forecast, leading the first 60 laps and 80 of the first 106.
But by the time a yellow flew after Johnny Sauter's Pontiac blew a tire and spewed debris on the track, varying fuel-only, two-tire, four-tire and no-stop pit strategies had shuffled things up to the point that Stewart was back in traffic a bit and no longer in charge.
"I think we had the fastest car today," Stewart said. "It was just a scenario where we got caught back in the pack and on the restarts the leaders were able to get away. Every restart we'd get a couple more positions and get closer to the front...(but) there really wasn't much we could do."
Harvick, meanwhile, had topped off his tank on an earlier yellow to set up his his fuel strategy, but he wound up on the same schedule as Newman. Both had pitted on Lap 198 leaving them 69 laps to cover to the checkered flag. Harvick had gone that many laps a year ago in successfully backing up his win in the inaugural race here in 2001, but this he couldn't do it on fuel mileage alone since he was behind Newman on the track.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. backed his car into the wall on Lap 208, all of the cars that weren't stretching fuel came in for the gas they'd need to go to the 267-lap distance. Newman, Jeff Burton, Michael Waltrip and Harvick stayed out and moved to the front.
Harvick got second from Waltrip on Lap 225, and on a late restart following a Casey Mears crash on Lap 234 he managed to hang closer to Newman.
Whether Newman was right or not in saying it never would have happened, the point became moot when Harvick's No. 29 Chevy slowed on Lap 265.
"The car started out loose and then it got tight toward the end of each run," Harvick said. "That's what happened there at the end with Ryan. I couldn't get up to him because the car was just too tight off the corners.
"We thought we had the pit strategy worked to perfection. It didn't work out that way."
Harvick wound up 17th. Stewart, who clawed his way back through the pack and passed Jimmie Johnson with eight laps to go, inherited second. Johnson, who'd started from the rear of the field after an engine change on Friday but had worked his way into contention quickly thereafter, was third.
Jeff Gordon finished fourth in his Chevrolet and moved back into second in the championship standings behind Matt Kenseth, who finished a lap down in 12th but still enjoys a 165-point lead at the season's halfway point. That's the ninth largest cushion for a leader since the current points system was put in place.
Earnhardt Jr. had been second at the beginning of Sunday's race, but he finished 38th after crashing a car that he said was "too loose to drive" and dropped to 258 points behind Kenseth. Labonte took a points hit, too, finishing 36th and falling to 327 points back.