Tony Stewart endured early misfortune, rallied from 40th to first, and then settled for a seventh-place finish in Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the season finale to the 36-race NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule.

Stewart started the 267-lap race from 13th in the field, but before he was able to mount any charge to the front, he caught a large chunk of debris in the nose of his #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Home Depot Chevrolet. A three-car crash on the backstretch involving Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman on just the fourth lap scattered debris all over, with a bouncing coil spring smashing its way through Stewart's front valance.

Once Stewart came to pit road, crewmembers went to work. Pre-cut sheets of metal, already fitted with screws along its edges, were attached to the nose of The Home Depot Chevrolet, covering the gap and making it whole again.

The time spent in the pits dropped Stewart all the way to 40th, but the team's quick and effective work kept Stewart on the lead lap. When the race restarted on lap nine, Stewart keyed the mic and said, "Here we go boys, forward progress coming right up."

Nine laps later Stewart was 30th, and by lap 26 he cracked the top-25. It was a preview of things to come.

When the caution flag waved for oil on lap 30, Stewart hit the pits again so that his crew could fine-tune their handiwork. They fitted another piece of metal to the nose to better the car's aerodynamics, and with a round of wedge to the right rear, they bettered the car's handling.

After restarting the race in 39th, Stewart climbed to 20th by lap 50. Twelve laps later he was 15th, and by lap 87 he had broken into the top-10. On lap 103 he passed Johnny Benson for fifth, and his presence amongst the leaders was now known. He took fourth from Jeremy Mayfield on lap 110 and third from Rusty Wallace on lap 113.

Stewart stayed in third behind the cars of Kevin Harvick and Bill Elliott until another caution waved on lap 143. A scheduled trip to pit road took longer than expected, with Stewart emerging in seventh upon the lap 151 restart.

Undaunted by the lengthy stop, Stewart again went to work, rallying The Home Depot Chevrolet back to third before rookie Greg Biffle crashed in turn three. Again the caution came out and again Stewart came to pit road, but this time the crew knocked out a 13.38-second stop, propelling the 2002 Winston Cup champion into the lead.

Stewart held the point for 14 laps after the race went green on lap 207. Elliott, who had proven his merit five times beforehand by leading a total of 111 laps, took the lead again when he displaced Stewart for the top spot.

But the quick pit work that had given Stewart the lead soon became his undoing. The four tires added during that stop - with no chassis adjustments whatsoever - made the #20 machine push badly through the track's new 20-degree corners.

When Ward Burton and Mark Martin crashed in turn one on lap 244 to bring out the caution, the decision to pit was a no-brainer. No adjustments were made, but four new tires were added. The stop put Stewart 13th in the running order, but after just a handful of green flag laps, the car was back to its fine-handling self. Trouble was, time was running out.

Stewart passed Elliott Sadler for 12th on lap 250, and in order to make any kind of charge on the leaders, Stewart needed the race to stay green. Thanks to Ricky Rudd's blown engine on lap 254, that didn't happen. Four laps passed under caution, which meant only 10 laps remained. Stewart made the most of them, picking his way to eighth by the second to last lap.

But when Elliott, the race leader who seemed destined for his second straight victory, pulled up lame in turn three with a cut right rear tire, second-place Bobby Labonte inherited the win, giving Joe Gibbs Racing its 40th Winston Cup victory. And as Elliott slowed, allowing Harvick to take second, Jimmie Johnson to take third, Benson to take fourth, Jeff Gordon to take fifth and Mayfield to take sixth, Stewart nipped Elliott at the line for seventh.

"It was a pretty uneventful day other than the start of the race," said Stewart. "It was pretty exciting having a bunch of race car parts lying in the middle of the race track. I ran over a spring real hard and tore up the front end. The guys did a great job of getting it back together. The car was never quite as good as it was yesterday in practice, but we still ran well all day and ended up with a decent finish, so I guess I can't complain too much."

The seventh-place result was Stewart's 18th top-10 finish of the season, a year in which Stewart scored two wins, one pole and 13 top-fives.

While the racing season is over, Winston Cup competitors head to New York City for the annual awards banquet in December. There, new champion Matt Kenseth will be honoured, along with the rest of the top-10. Stewart finished the season seventh in the drivers standings, a position that was confirmed during the penultimate round of the series last weekend in Rockingham.



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