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Stewart Salvages 15th at Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif.

Tony Stewart battled back from an early race spin to finish a respectable 15th in Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350k NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Infineon Raceway.

Three laps into the 110-lap race on the 1.99-mile road course, Stewart spun off the exit of turn one as he attempted to pass Ward Burton for the 14th spot. There was minimal damage to the right front corner of Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, while the contact sent Burton backward into a tire barrier.

Both drivers headed to the pits for repairs. Stewart's damage was purely cosmetic, with crew members able to reshape the contours of the right front wheel well during the four-tire pit stop. He returned to the track in 37th, far back in the 43-car field but still on the lead lap.

He quickly began picking up positions, despite his Home Depot Chevrolet pushing badly through the corners. When the next caution flag waved on lap 17, Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli opted to pit. They needed to fix their ill-handling race car and they needed to fix it now. There was still plenty of racing left, but the team needed every available lap to work their way to the front.

After a wedge and air pressure adjustment, Stewart restarted in 27th on lap 18. His car, however, still wouldn't turn through the corners.

Stewart was forced to manhandle the car, because pitting again wasn't an option. As those ahead of Stewart began making green flag pit stops on lap 30, Stewart steadily rose up the leader board. His lap 17 pit stop allowed him to stay out longer than anyone else, which gave him the lead - and the five valuable bonus points that came with it - on lap 36.

But his time at the front was short-lived, as Stewart needed to pit as well. He sought service from his crew on lap 37, where another chassis adjustment was made.

"Still the same," responded Stewart shortly thereafter. "It still won't turn."

And that was the theme of the day. No matter what kinds of changes were made to aid the #20 car's handling, it was to no avail. Stewart simply had to gut it out, which he did quite admirably, bringing The Home Depot Chevrolet home in 15th for his ninth top-15 finish of the season.

The result maintained Stewart's fifth-place standing in the championship points chase, but leader Jimmie Johnson distanced himself even more, as 307 points now separate Stewart from Johnson. And one driver behind Stewart in points inched ever closer, with a single point being all that stands between Stewart and sixth-place Elliott Sadler.

Enjoying a much better day was Jeff Gordon, who scored his fourth Nextel Cup victory at Infineon, his third of the season and the 67th of his career. Rounding out the top-five were Jamie McMurray, Scott Pruett, Michael Waltrip and Johnson. Boris Said, Casey Mears, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Sadler comprised the rest of the top-10.

The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the July 3 Pepsi 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. Live coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. EDT on FOX.

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