Stewart wins as defending champ in rain-delayed Pontiac 400

Sunday, May 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Tony Stewart pulled away on a restart with 17 laps to go Sunday and won the rain-delayed Pontiac Excitement 400 by steering clear of a record number of accidents.

Stewart, the defending race champion, moved his Pontiac past Ryan Newman on lap No. 373 and led the last 27 laps at Richmond International Raceway.

It was Stewart's second victory of the season, his third in seven races on the three-quarter mile oval and the 14th of his career.

Newman held on for second in his Ford, followed by the Fords of Jack Roush teammates Jeff Burton and Mark Martin, and Jeremy Mayfield's Dodge.

Matt Kenseth, another Roush driver, rallied from three laps down early to finish sixth, and Jeff Gordon was seventh as the first Chevrolet.

Stewart, who qualified third but started 41st because he changed his engine before the race, was in the 27th spot when the race was red-flagged because of rain after 66 laps Saturday night. He made it up slowly, appearing in the lead pack for the first time with about 150 laps remaining.

It wasn't until the last 67 laps that he was within striking distance, and after passing Gordon for second with 55 laps to go, he turned his attention to Newman, a rookie having the best run of his career.

Following on Newman's bumper for several laps, Stewart finally sneaked his car underneath on the 372nd lap, rode side-by-side with Newman for a lap and then pulled ahead for good entering the first turn.

The side-by-side duel was a rare sight on the track, which proved mostly a one-groove raceway because of a new sealer that didn't work.

The race produced a track record-tying 14 caution flags that slowed the pace for a track record 103 laps and wiped out several contenders.

``They took a great race track and screwed it up,'' said Ricky Rudd, who made his 655th consecutive start to tie Terry Labonte's series mark, but had a chance at victory taken away on a crash with 91 laps to go.

Several cars spun while running where the second groove used to be in the first and second turns, and others had trouble out of Turn 4.

``The race track is coming apart,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after crashing coming out of turn four and losing 56 laps in the garage area.

For much of the day, it looked like Rudd would make history in style. The veteran had the dominant car until a flat front tire caused Rusty Wallace to clip Rudd's, sending it slamming into the wall on lap No. 309.

``He hit me in the quarter panel and it was over,'' said Rudd, who was upset that Wallace didn't get out of the way after blowing the tire.

Moments later, with the caution out for the 10th time, Robby Gordon plowed into the water-filled barrels guarding the concrete entrance to pit road, bringing out a red flag for 15 minutes to clean up both messes.

Jimmy Spencer regained the lead because of Rudd's accident, but when the race went back to green with 84 laps left, Jimmie Johnson stayed on his bumper for several laps, then challenged for the lead on lap No. 327.

As they headed into the third and fourth turns with Johnson inside Spencer, Johnson's car slid up the track and spun into the wall. Spencer slowed and continued on unscathed as Newman assumed the top spot.

One lap after the restart with 67 laps left, Spencer bumped Martin from behind, getting Martin loose and causing a pack of cars to check up in a cloud of smoke on the backstretch. Ten cars were involved in the accident, including Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin.

Marlin remained the points leader by 132 over Kenseth, who passed Kurt Busch for second. Busch is third, 191 behind, and Martin climbed into fourth, giving Roush three of the top four. Martin is 193 behind.