While the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship went to Matt Kenseth, the ninth-place finish Tony Stewart earned in Sunday's Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at North Carolina Speedway showed championship form.

Stewart started the 393-lap race deep in the 43-car field at 29th, but thanks to a tenacious drive and savvy chassis adjustments by crew chief Greg Zipadelli, Stewart came from a lap down to earn his 17th top-10 finish of the year.

"We had a good day," said Stewart, last year's Winston Cup champion. "We didn't have the best car in the world, by any means. But we kept digging all day and got a top-10 finish out of it, and that's what you have to do to win championships."

Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet was an ill-handling machine at the onset of the race, but the first of many steps to remedy its chassis woes came during the race's first caution period on lap 77. It was there where Zipadelli called for a major adjustment. A round of wedge came out of the left rear, the track bar was lowered one round, and a pound of air pressure was taken out of both left side tires.

But before Stewart could feel the benefit of those changes, he had to thread his way through a Ryan Newman spin in turn two on lap 84. As the field stacked up in a cloud of tire smoke, Stewart ran into the back of Kenseth, sending the point leader sideways before he could gather his car back up. Stewart quickly keyed the radio, saying "Tell Matt I'm sorry," which spotter Mark Robertson relayed to Kenseth's spotter.

Only superficial damage was done to both Stewart's nose and Kenseth's bumper, with the two able to continue the race.

Stewart kept moving forward, cracking the top-15 following a restart on lap 177. And after the first long, green flag run of the race, Stewart was able to move into 10th on lap 141. But his Home Depot Chevrolet was still far from perfect. "I've moved all over this race track and I still can't turn," said Stewart.

Another pit stop while under caution on lap 156 allowed for an additional chassis adjustment, with Zipadelli raising the track bar one round in an effort to get the car to turn better through the corners.

Stewart restarted the race in 12th and continued to fight the car through the corners, but at least now the fight was going in Stewart's favour. "I'm getting a good bite off the corner, but we still need to get this thing to turn better," said Stewart.

With a caution on lap 242, Stewart was able to come to pit road for four tires, fuel and another chassis adjustment. One-and-a-half rounds of wedge were added to the right rear, with Stewart holding steady at 12th when he returned to the racetrack.

But while 12th was a respectable position, the pace set by the leaders made staying on the lead lap a difficult assignment, as only the top-eight drivers were on the lead lap. When Stewart re-earned the 10th spot on lap 304, only Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte was ahead of him in the "lucky dog" spot - the first car one lap down. That's the position to be in whenever the caution flag comes out, for that driver automatically earns his lap back per the NASCAR rulebook.

With Labonte able to get his lap back following a caution on lap 330, Stewart moved into the "lucky dog" spot. But when the caution flag flew again on lap 369, Stewart wasn't able to earn his lap back because the caution was for him. In an effort to avoid an errant Larry Foyt, who had driven low into turn one only to shoot high across the race track into the outside groove, Stewart spun out and came to a rest unscathed on the apron.

Stewart quickly re-fired his car and came to pit road for four tires and fuel, where he left in 10th as the first car one lap down. When the final caution of the day came on lap 376 for Ken Schrader's crash into the turn one wall, Stewart finally became the "lucky dog." And shortly upon his return to the lead lap, Stewart displaced Sterling Marlin for ninth.

"We either had short runs or real long runs," said Stewart, "and I wanted the real long runs. We got pretty good at the end of the day on long runs, and that's what we needed."

The ninth-place finish solidified Stewart's seventh-place standing in points with still one more race remaining - the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With 197 points separating Stewart from sixth-place Kevin Harvick and 201 points separating Stewart from eighth-place Bobby Labonte, nothing can happen in the season finale to usurp Stewart's seventh-place standing, as the maximum amount of points that can be gained in a single Winston Cup race is 185.

And while Kenseth clinched his first Winston Cup championship a week early, 167 points separate positions two through sixth in what will be a heated battle at Homestead.

Winning the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 was veteran Bill Elliott, who scored his 44th career Winston Cup victory in his 730th start. It was his first win since Indianapolis last year - a span of 50 races. Finishing second was Jimmie Johnson, while Elliott's Evernham Motorsports teammate Jeremy Mayfield finished third. Kenseth came home fourth with Ryan Newman took fifth.



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