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Stewart pads NASCAR lead as foes falter

Kurt Busch wins 2nd straight at rain-shortened NAPA 500.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 28, 2002

HAMPTON, Ga. -- In his efforts to win the Winston Cup championship, stubborn ol' Tony Stewart promises he will try to win the season's final three races.

It's his nature.

But it's not necessary.

Stewart has a little breathing room atop the points standings after outpacing his challengers with a fourth-place finish Sunday in the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He leads Mark Martin by 146 and can clinch the title by finishing ninth in each of the final three events.

Kurt Busch won the rain-shortened race, dime-sized raindrops splattering the windshield of his No. 97 Ford as he took the checkered flag under caution.

Joe Nemechek's Chevrolet was second, Dale Jarrett's Ford third.

It was a gray day, but Stewart beamed.

"There isn't a sucker out there who can say I was points racing," said Stewart, who led three times for 39 laps after gaining the pole when qualifying was rained out and the field was set by points. "I had that thing sideways chasing Nemechek down. I could have cruised, but I was going for the win."

Busch led four times for 84 laps, including the final 43, to record consecutive wins. He won at Martinsville and has three wins this season. At 24, he is the fourth driver to win more than once before his 25th birthday, joining Jeff Gordon (15), Richard Petty (seven) and Junior Johnson (five).

"It's a great feeling to have two in a row and it's a great indication of where this team is heading," said Busch, who failed to qualify for this race last season as a rookie. "Last year I wasn't even at this race, so it feels that much better to get to Victory Lane."

The race was delayed nearly 21/2 hours by rain but was able to continue under the lights at AMS. Scheduled for 325 laps on the 1.54-mile D-shaped oval, it was stopped after 248 when a steady rain soaked the track at about 6 p.m.

"We just needed some more laps," said Nemechek, who led three times for 57 and made a strong bid to keep his job driving the No. 25 Chevrolet next season for Hendrick Motorsports. "It's disappointing, but the team is coming together."

What had been the closest championship battle since the current system was adopted in 1975 -- the top five drivers were separated by just 177 -- now has some elbow room. Three of the top five lost ground to Stewart, and fifth-place Rusty Wallace is 227 back.

In 1992, the top five were separated by 98.

Rookie Jimmie Johnson slipped one position and trails Stewart by 150 after twice losing control of the No. 48 Chevrolet and spinning on the track -- in Turn 4 of Lap 137 and on the backstretch of Lap 230. He finished 22nd, one lap down.

"There's no heartbreak," Johnson said. "We had a loose race car and I spun out twice. Luckily, I didn't hit anything. We really expected the track to tighten up and it didn't. It's something we didn't need for the big picture, but we're rookies. This stuff is supposed to happen."

Penske Racing teammates Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, who began the day 174 and 177 back, respectively, are now long shots. Wallace gave up early track position to correct a loose condition and never fully recovered. He finished 17th, the first car one lap down. Newman also fought a loose car but finished 10th.

Newman trails Stewart by 203.

"Mathematically, we've got a shot, and that's what we'll go for," Newman said. "It's like when you meet a girl and she tells you you have a one-in-a-million chance, you've still got that chance."

Martin, who struggled in practice, was surprised to have a strong car on long runs and would have liked to complete the race under green to better his eighth-place finish.

"We were coming at the time," said Martin, a three-time championship runner-up seeking his first title. "But I'm thrilled. We've got some work to do, but we're staying in this thing."

Stewart nearly doubled his points lead while challenging for the victory and a sweep of the Atlanta races this season. Not bad, considering what he narrowly avoided.

When the race was stopped for rain after 26 laps, two loose lug nuts were discovered on Stewart's right front tire. When the race resumed, he pitted under caution. Though he went from second to 32nd, the loose tire could have been trouble had the it blown or had Stewart been forced to pit during a green-flag run.

Within 35 laps, he was back in the top 10.

"We drove our way to the front," said Stewart, who leads the series with 15 top fives. "We didn't get three yellows to help us get there. We drove nonstop on our way to the front before the yellow finally came out. This thing was awesome all day."

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