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ALLSTATE 400 AT THE BRICKYARD

Stewart slips past to sip in victory

He gets by Harvick after long duel and calmly quenches thirst on way to win on hometown track.

July 30, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Stewart had the strongest car all day, but with 20 laps left in his favorite race on his hometown track Sunday, Stewart found himself second behind friend Kevin Harvick.

The two NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers battled for the next 25 miles, with Stewart trying to pass twice and Harvick, the 2003 winner from Bakersfield, blocking him twice.

At one point, the Chevrolets were side by side and tapped each other as more than 200,000 watched the duel at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Stewart finally slipped past Harvick into the lead and, while driving 200 mph down the straightaway, Stewart casually took his hand off the steering wheel to sip from a water bottle on the way to victory.

"I was thirsty," he deadpanned.

Stewart won the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard for the second time and with a confidence he earned only after first capturing the race in 2005. That's when the moody, outspoken driver from Columbus, Ind., finally fulfilled his dream of reaching Victory Lane at the historic 2.5-mile speedway.

"The first one was great, but there was so much going on around it, being the first one," said Stewart, 36, a two-time Cup champion for Joe Gibbs Racing who led a race-high 65 of the 160 laps.

"That's probably what helped us today, not being wound up, being able to be calm and relaxed, because it wasn't like it was untouchable anymore," he said.

The victory also gave Stewart back-to-back wins; he won the previous race at Chicagoland Speedway in Illinois two weeks ago after going 20 races without a victory.

Harvick said the battle with Stewart "was just good racing until I got the left front fender caved in" on his Richard Childress Racing Chevy.

Stewart "didn't quite give us enough room," Harvick said.

Harvick faded at the end to finish seventh, and Juan Pablo Montoya brought his Dodge home in second, where the Colombian started the race.

Four-time race winner Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports was third in what most Cup drivers consider the second most prestigious race on the calendar behind the season-opening Daytona 500.

It was an impressive Brickyard 400 debut for Montoya, the former open-wheel racer and Indianapolis 500 winner who switched to NASCAR this year for the team of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

"It was exciting," said Montoya, who became the first driver to compete here in three different series: NASCAR, Indy cars and Formula One.

"It's the first actual race that I could get to people and I could pass them," Montoya said.

However, he added: "I don't think anybody had anything for Tony today."

After his win, Stewart and a dozen of his crew members climbed the fence in front of the grandstands near the start-finish line. Then they knelt and kissed the yard-wide strip of bricks that's left from the speedway's bygone days in what has become a tradition for the winning team.

The win lifted Stewart to fifth from sixth in points, improving his chances of qualifying for the Chase for the Championship, the series' playoff to determine the series winner.

"There's still a lot of racing to go," he said. "There are no guarantees. But it's neat knowing that the last two guys that have won this race [Stewart in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson last year] have won the championship."

The top dozen drivers in points after 26 races make the 10-race Chase at the end of the season, and the Brickyard 400 was the 20th race.

Six crashes dominated the first half of Sunday's race, as several contenders struggled to maneuver through Indy's tight, flat corners at high speed.

A multicar crash on Lap 46 involved Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Rudd. Johnson tried to continue after repairs in the pits, but he then blew a tire, sending his Hendrick Chevrolet into the wall.

His car caught fire before coming to a stop, and Johnson jumped from the car after having his eyelashes singed. He finished 39th in the 43-car field.

A few laps later, another crash collected four more drivers, including Elliott Sadler and Johnson teammate Casey Mears of Bakersfield.

Kasey Kahne, Sadler's teammate at Evernham Motorsports, and Tony Raines of Hall of Fame Racing also collided early in the race, and Ryan Newman of Penske Racing spun and hit the wall. Kahne's wreck was the latest chapter in a dismal season for the Dodge driver, who won a series-high six races last year. This year he has no wins, two top-10 finishes and is 28th in the points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. started fourth and led 33 laps early in the race. He was still in the top 10 with 25 laps remaining when his Chevrolet suffered a blown engine, and he finished 34th.

"You have bad luck every once in a while," he said. "We have great motors all year long. The car was fast and I was really enjoying myself."

Earnhardt maintained his 12th spot in the points, but he's only 13 points ahead of Kurt Busch, another Penske driver and the 2004 Cup champion.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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