29th April 2012, 07:50 AM
Stewart finishes third despite uneven day in pits
RICHMOND, Va. -- Saturday night's Capital City 400 was an ugly Richmond International Raceway flashback for Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli and he agreed with his owner/driver Tony Stewart on one key point -- their pit crew's performance Saturday night was unacceptable.
Stewart overcame a mediocre 22nd-place starting position to run in the top five for the race's last 300 laps -- including leading 118 of them in four separate stints out front. He had a dominant lead of almost two seconds over eventual race winner Kyle Busch with 13 laps remaining.
But then a caution flew with 12 laps left and, even though Stewart was disgusted because "we lost it on a plastic bottle on the backstretch," NASCAR spotters reported debris in Turn 2, on the backstretch and Turn 3, including a piece of sheet metal, NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said.
Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing crew executed a better pit stop than Stewart's and it was game, set and match for the driver who hadn't won in 22 races and had only two top-five finishes since Michigan last August.
"No catching Stewart without that caution," Busch said bluntly after the race. "I was losing half a 10th [of a second] to a 10th on every lap to what Tony was doing up there. He was just so fast."
Unfortunately for Stewart, his pit crew couldn't match the owner's pace. Stewart came out of the pits second, but was jumped by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final restart with nine laps remaining, dooming Stewart to finish third.
Zipadelli, who was having an impromptu stand-up meeting in the darkened Richmond garage after the race with SHR pit crew coach Joe Piette and one of their crewmen, vowed to fix the issue.
"We'll keep working on it and try to make things better -- give them better tools to try to make more consistent stops," Zipadelli said. "But [Saturday] we just didn't do our jobs. They did a great job all weekend with [Stewart's] car -- Tony was very happy with it.
"That was the best car he's had here, by far -- like I told him out [on pit road], 'the last one you lost here, we lost it on pit road,' when [Stewart] was in the [Joe Gibbs Racing] 20 car and Jimmie Johnson beat us in the fall.
"We kicked their ass all day long and got beat on pit road and finished second to [Johnson], and the same thing happened [Saturday]. It's frustrating and [Stewart] has all the right in the world to be mad. I know he handled it right [in interviews] and I went to him right when he got out of the car and told him we'd work on it and we'd fix it."
Speaking of flashbacks, that pit road session was one right out of Stewart and Zipadelli's best days at JGR, which included two Cup Series championships.
"I told him if he wanted to punch me, kick me, whatever -- we'll go wrestle up there," Zipadelli said, breaking into a shallow smile. "But I told him to handle it the right way.
"But he's got the right [to be upset] because he drove his ass off -- nobody gave him anything. He started in the back, qualified [poorly] and worked his tail off and passed a lot of race cars [Saturday] night, so it's a shame that when you're that good, a caution comes out with  to go and changes the outcome of the race, because of circumstances."
That late loss was the second time Stewart had entered the pits out front, only to lose the lead. Stewart pitted with a 1.293-second lead at lap 205, but Carl Edwards beat Stewart out of the pits to take the point, which Stewart didn't regain until 46 laps later.
"We gave it away on pit road," Stewart said to a TV crew on pit road, immediately after exiting his car. "So we did everything we could to throw it away. That's the best car I've had at Richmond in a long time. So I'm really proud of that and [crew chief] Steve Addington and I'm proud of our guys.
"But we've got some work to do on pit stops right now. I don't know what their malfunction was but I'm pretty ticked off about it."
By the time Stewart reached the infield media center -- it turns out with Zipadelli's influence -- he'd softened his stance a great deal, refusing to discuss the pit road issues when directly asked about it. He said Stewart-Haas' post-race meetings this week would be status quo.
"No different than anybody else that has a scenario that happens [Saturday] night," Stewart said patiently. "You go back and try to work on it and try to remedy the problem and try and make sure it doesn't happen again."
It doesn't seem like any drastic changes are planned to the over-the-wall crew that performed, literally, like champs in last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
However, Zipadelli acknowledged that in the first nine races of this season, their level hasn't been up to par, even as he agreed Stewart-Haas has "a damned good pit crew."
"We've been a little inconsistent this year," said Zipadelli, himself a former tire changer. "And you can't have that -- and you can't have that when you have that big a lead coming in [to the pits] and you give it away, you know? We've got to get focused [and] we've got to get the guys relaxed so they can just do their jobs.
"They're good guys, they do a good job but [Saturday] was a tough day for both pit crews [Stewart's and SHR teammate Ryan Newman's]. We struggled a little bit on pit road. We've already addressed some of it and we'll address a lot more of it going into this week and give these guys everything they need to do their job.
"But at the end of the day they've got to do their job, they've got to relax and go have fun with it and do what they get paid for. The best guys in the world are out there on pit road and that's why they're here doing it -- just like the drivers. They train hard and they work hard and put a lot of effort into it but we've just got to figure out how to be a little bit more consistent."
And in the end, Stewart praised his men, rather than burying them.
"Yeah, I'm proud of our guys," Stewart said. "That's the best car I've had here at Richmond in a long, long time -- something I felt really comfortable with. It was good right off the bat, and proud of Steve Addington [who] just kept making it better and better and better."
Surprisingly, Stewart's Richmond finish was only his fourth top-10 of the season -- and two of those have been wins.
"We were where we needed to be at the end of the day," Stewart said. "We stayed up with that trio of guys up front the last, I don't know, 150 laps or so. That's what you've got to do. I mean, it feels this is my favorite track, so it feels good to be running good here at Richmond again."
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