In Sunday's caution-riddled Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Tony Stewart drove his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet to a flawless third-place finish at the tight and fast .526-mile oval, giving the reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion his fifth top-five finish in a row and his sixth career top-10 finish at Martinsville.

Stewart's solid run maintained his seventh spot in the championship point standings, while allowing him to extend his advantage over eighth-place Bobby Labonte - Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate - to 131 points, whose day ended prematurely due to engine troubles.

From his 16th place starting spot in the 43-car field, Stewart only moved forward. By lap 50 of the 500-lap race he had settled into the top-10, where he stayed for the remainder of the race as his Home Depot Chevrolet proved to be a much improved piece from the one he practiced with on Saturday.

"If you would have asked me yesterday morning how I thought we'd run today, I'd need a calculator to figure out how many laps down we'd be," said Stewart. "We went from the first 45-minute practice session to the second one and it was during the second session where (crew chief) Greg Zipadelli basically changed everything on the car except for the steering wheel and the driver's seat, resulting in the car being a ton better during that second session and even better today.

"I'm really proud of Greg and Jason Shapiro - our brake guy," added Stewart. "Jason has worked so hard on trying to get a brake package that will last 500 laps here and not fade. It makes it a lot easier to go fast when you don't need to worry about that centre pedal anymore."

Throughout the race The Home Depot over-the-wall crew made only minor adjustments to keep the #20 Monte Carlo in contention. When adjustments were needed, they came in the form of slight air pressure adjustments and tweaks to the track bar. Most pit stops were for the standard four tires and fuel.

By lap 205, Stewart had worked his way into the top-five, racing the likes of Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. On lap 274, Stewart grabbed the lead from Earnhardt momentarily, but quickly gave it up the following lap due to a round of yellow flag pit stops.

Stewart restarted in fifth on lap 281, where he immediately began to fight lapped traffic and other lead lap cars to maintain his position. Stewart deftly wheeled his Chevrolet through the congestion with pinpoint accuracy, finally settling into third behind Earnhardt and race leader Jeff Gordon.

Gordon led twice for 313 laps, the most of any driver, and wound up victorious. It was his 63rd career Winston Cup victory, giving the four-time Winston Cup champion a clean sweep of both Martinsville races in 2003. A late-charging Jimmie Johnson finished second, while Stewart, Earnhardt and Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five.

In the race for the championship, second-place Harvick gained 27 points on series leader Matt Kenseth thanks to a solid seventh-place finish. But Kenseth, who finished 13th, still maintains a hefty 240 point lead over Harvick with only four races remaining.

The next event on the Winston Cup schedule is the Oct. 26 Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.



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