Stewart Wins NAPA 500 With Flair

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — A strong showing by Bobby Labonte moved him closer to his first championship, though Sunday's race might also have marked the arrival of Tony Stewart as a bonafide superstar.

Stewart, 29, demonstrated all the tools of greatness in winning the NAPA 500. He shook off an early race blunder, protected his lead over the final 11 laps and shared the credit for it all with his team and crew.

And once again, Stewart also showed his penchant for making things interesting for fans, taking time in Victory Lane to thank three guys that had been jeering him all day long for spurring him on to the victory.

In essence, all the ingredients for stardom were on display, along with that hint of villian that has always been part of NASCAR's appeal.

``In my opinion, the guys on the crew are the guys that won it for us today,'' Stewart said after beating Dale Earnhardt to the finish by .672 seconds. The victory was Stewart's Winston Cup-high fifth this year.

Early in the race, Stewart was leading when one of 13 cautions came out. He elected to stay on the track, and all the cars chasing him headed for pit road, leaving him in the lead, but also on much older tires.

``I felt like I threw it away right there,'' he said.

Eventually, Stewart's tires caused him to begin sliding back through the field, and he dropped quickly to ninth while trying to hang on.

Later, he credited his crew's prerace setup for making the car less susceptible to fading out of contention than might have been expected, and paid tribute to his team for giving him a chance to come back at all.

``The guys kept making up time in the pits. They'd get me a spot or two and then I'd get a spot or two on the track,'' he said. ``Every time we came in we did that. It gave us enough time to get back toward the front.''

And when he did just that, taking the lead for the third and final time with 26 laps to go, he made quick work of an anticipated battle to the end with Earnhardt, pulling away quickly and ending the suspense.

Admittedly relieved at having dodged a duel with The Intimidator, Stewart then took aim at the backstretch boys who shared in the victory.

``This guy might have been an Earnhardt fan,'' he said of the one that stuck out most. ``I don't know whose fan he was. He definitely was not my fan. But every time I saw that guy, and he was making gestures all day, every time he did it I was more determined I was going to run good.''

Stewart earlier this year drew the ire of fans and drivers alike for suggesting too many people were hanging around the garage area on race days, getting in the way of the competitors trying to prepare for work.

Now, his work includes eight victories in less than two full seasons, three sets of back-to-back victories, and some of the loudest cheers — and competing jeers — during driver introduction most everywhere he goes.