Winning is the only thing that matters to Tony Stewart. So despite leading three times for 109 laps - the most of any driver in the rain-delayed Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and earning his sixth straight top-five finish in as many weeks, Stewart was in no mood to celebrate after his second-place finish to race winner Jeff Gordon.

"We had a really good car all day," said a frustrated Stewart. "We just didn't win."

Stewart's dominant drive began Sunday afternoon where, from his 24th place starting spot he methodically worked his way to fourth before persistent rain moved over the 1.54-mile oval, forcing NASCAR to postpone the 325-lap race to Monday morning.

Stewart picked up right where he left off, nipping Bill Elliott for third on lap 56, Kevin Harvick for second on lap 59 and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte for first on lap 62.

Stewart held the point for the next 38 circuits before a round of pit stops while under caution allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take the lead. With the exception of Kurt Busch leading laps 102-104, Earnhardt paced the field until Stewart reasserted himself out front on lap 129.

With a Home Depot Chevrolet that became only stronger as the race stayed green, Stewart opened up a nearly six-second lead by lap 150. That lead evaporated on the following circuit, however, when debris in turn one brought out the caution. Stewart pitted for four tires and fuel, requested no chassis adjustments, and restarted the race right where he left it - in first.

He continued to lead until lap 200, whereupon another caution brought the field back onto pit road for scheduled service. Only a half round of wedge was added to the left rear corner of the #20 machine, but the stop was a tick slow as a lugnut fell off the left front wheel during the tire change. Stewart emerged from pit road in fourth, with Gordon leading and Labonte and Busch taking second and third, respectively.

Stewart made his way to second by lap 221, but his bid for the lead was thwarted by another caution on lap 223 when Steve Park pounded the turn two wall.

Stewart's seemingly easy drive soon became complicated when his scheduled trip to pit road went anything but as scheduled. A lug became caught in the rear tire changer's air wrench during the exchange on the left rear. The time it took to switch air wrenches with the front tire changer was scant, but it was still enough to drop Stewart from second to 16th when the race restarted on lap 229.

"Be cautiously aggressive," radioed crew chief Greg Zipadelli to his driver.

"Boys, pull yourselves up to the pit wall, get a good seat and watch the show. We're about to get it on," responded Stewart.

And that he did. Stewart passed Dale Jarrett and Jeremy Mayfield for 14th on lap 230, Jamie McMurray for 13th on lap 231, Matt Kenseth for 12th on lap 232, Jimmy Spencer and Kevin Lepage for 10th on lap 234, Elliott Sadler for ninth on lap 236, Ryan Newman and Robby Gordon for seventh on lap 246, Busch for sixth on lap 253, Elliott for fifth on lap 260, Earnhardt for fourth on lap 267 and Labonte for third on lap 283.

A quick, green flag pit stop for fuel and four tires on lap 287 enabled Stewart to leapfrog Jimmie Johnson for second-place, with Stewart's crosshairs now centred on race leader Jeff Gordon.

Stewart gave chase, making a couple of moves on Gordon as the race wound down. But Gordon proved strong, fending Stewart off before the day's final caution for Newman's lap 322 crash in turn three.

The detritus of Newman's #12 Dodge couldn't be cleared in time before the chequered flag waved, allowing Gordon a free pass for the final three laps. With the pace car leading the field across the finish line, it was Gordon, Stewart, Johnson, Elliott and Labonte in the top-five, with Earnhardt, Mayfield, Busch, Spencer and Joe Nemechek rounding out the top-10.

"That was pretty impressive, coming from 16th to second with no cautions," said Stewart. "I'm really proud of this Home Depot Monte Carlo team. Everybody at JGR has been doing an awesome job. Through the disappointments we had earlier this year, these guys have really bounced back and I'm really proud of them."

Stewart's second-place result maintained his seventh-place standing in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings, as he sits 178 points arrears sixth-place Newman and 151 points ahead of eighth-place Labonte.

Point leader Matt Kenseth opened up his lead in the championship standings to 258 markers over second-place Earnhardt thanks to a solid 11th place finish. Harvick, who had held the second spot in points coming into Atlanta, was caught up in a lap 201 accident with Dave Blaney that left him 20th in the final rundown. Harvick fell to third in points, 262 digits behind Kenseth but only four points behind Earnhardt.

Just three races remain, with the next event on the Winston Cup schedule being the Checker Auto Parts 500k at Phoenix International Raceway.



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