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Track 'Too Tough to Tame' Lives Up to its Name

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DARLINGTON, S.C.

Stewart Finishes 17th, But Gains 47 Points on Championship Leader Matt Kenseth Venerable Darlington Raceway - the 55-year-old egg-shaped oval with the moniker "too tough to tame" - proved worthy of its nickname in Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race as Tony Stewart saw a top-10 finish disappear into a 17th place result. Stewart started eighth in the 43-car field, and after running as high as fourth just 17 laps into the 293-lap contest, he began to drift backward as the handling of his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet became tighter and tighter. "I couldn't turn this thing in a 40-acre field," said Stewart over the radio on lap 21. Adding another element to Stewart's difficult drive was a trio of slow race cars, one of whom was the Ford of Andy Hillenburg. "They need to park those guys. They're going to cause a helluva wreck," said Stewart on lap 27. One lap later, the caution flag waved for Hillenburg, as Stewart approached him quicker then expected in turn two, making contact with him and spinning him out. As Hillenburg twirled about, Jeff Gordon barreled into him, ending each driver's day. The caution period allowed Stewart to head to pit road, where four fresh tires and two cans of gas augmented a track bar and tire pressure adjustment. The changes did little to help The Home Depot machine, as it dropped to eighth before another caution on lap 53. Track bar, wedge and continued tire pressure adjustments were made, but it did nothing to remedy the car's handling woes. Stewart fell all the way to 16th before a green flag pit stop on lap 114. There, two rounds of wedge were added to the left rear corner while the crew bolted on four new Goodyears. After a couple of laps, the changes appeared to finally provide some dividends, as Stewart quietly worked his way back into top-10 contention. More caution periods and more pit stops followed, with Stewart hovering at or near the top-10. But it was a pit stop on lap 230 with a little more than 60 laps remaining that seemed to give Stewart the edge he needed to earn what could've been his fourth top-10 of the season. By raising the air pressure a half-pound in both rear tires, Stewart came away from the lap 238 restart with his sights set on the Ford of Greg Biffle and the Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He passed both drivers with 28 laps to go. Another caution came on lap 275 for oil on the track, which should've set the stage for the #20 team's last pit stop. But as the field headed to pit road, Biffle blocked Stewart from entering the pits. Livid, Stewart was forced to make a full lap around the 1.366-mile oval before getting his scheduled service. The silver lining in all of this was the five bonus points Stewart earned for leading a lap, as all the other lead lap drivers were getting four tires and fuel in their respective pit stalls. That was a tough sell to Stewart, however, as he emerged for the lap 283 restart in 17th. Doing all he could to earn as many positions as possible, Stewart made contact with rookie Kasey Kahne in turn three when Kahne had to check up to avoid the car in front of him. Kahne spun and the caution flag waved for the ninth and final time with only 10 laps remaining. It took track safety crews six laps to clean up the debris, leaving only four laps of racing before the checkered flag fell. After having made his final pit stop, Stewart restarted in 16th, but was soon passed by the quicker car of Casey Mears. As Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte fought Jimmie Johnson for the win, the orange and black #20 crossed the stripe in 17th. "We worked hard all day to end up in the top-10, and that's where we were with about 15 (laps) to go," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli. "Then we had that deal with getting on pit road with Biffle. I didn't see it, so I don't know other than what my spotter told me, and what he said was that Biffle drove up underneath us. Tony sped up to try to get back around him, where he should've been. But then we missed pit road because he got in the sand there and slid past the cone. That's frustrating to know that we had a terrible car and we battled back. Through a lot of runs we passed a lot of cars and got back up in the top-10. That's what we said we wanted to do when we came here. This hasn't been our best place. We've had decent finishes, but we've never just really run well. We just tried to run in the top-10. That's what we needed to do, and we gave up seven spots there at the end. It's frustrating that stuff like that happens, because it seems like if it's going to happen it's going to happen to us. Just another comment I can put in my book." As disappointing as the result was, it was far from the disappointment endured by championship point leader Matt Kenseth. The defending series champion finished a dismal 31st, allowing Stewart - who had been second in points entering Darlington, 82 markers behind Kenseth - to close to within 35 points. But a solid 10th place finish by Earnhardt actually bumped Stewart to third in points, with the Daytona 500 champ taking the runner-up slot, 21 points arrears Kenseth. Winning the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 was Johnson, who notched his seventh career Nextel Cup win in his 80th start. Labonte's second-place finish was his second top-10 of the season and his best result since winning last year's season finale at Homestead (Fla.). Ryan Newman came home third, while Robby Gordon and Elliott Sadler rounded out the top-five. The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the March 28 Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Live coverage by FOX begins at 1 p.m. EST.

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