Stewart bangs, hustles way to fifth-place finish


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A wreck-filled Daytona 500 spelled trouble for Jeff Gordon and got Tony Stewart in some hot water, too.

Gordon brought a damaged No. 24 Chevrolet home a lowly 26th. But while Stewart finished in a much more impressive fifth place, he came out of the race being called a hypocrite. He was involved in several on-track altercations after sounding the alarm on the possibility of dangerous racing at Daytona International Speedway last weekend.

"Tony went out and said all that stuff earlier in the week," Matt Kenseth said, referring to Stewart's prediction that a driver could get killed if aggressive driving wasn't regulated at Daytona. "He's worried about people's lives and everything, and then he's going to wreck you on purpose at 190 [mph]? I wasn't too happy with that."

Stewart was involved in several on-track altercations at Daytona.

Nearly 125 miles into the race, Gordon, feeling the wind push his No. 24 Chevrolet up the track, tried to prematurely complete a pass on Stewart coming out of Turn 2. He hadn't cleared Stewart, though, and Stewart maintained his speed rather than ease off the gas and let Gordon pull in ahead of him. That's when the back right quarterpanel of Gordon's car rubbed up against the left-front fender of Stewart's car. Both drivers' teams scurried about their cars, trying to fix the damage.

"I don't know what he was doing there," Stewart said.

Gordon responded that he couldn't keep his car from moving up the track, but that Stewart could have avoided the damage to both cars by slowing a little and letting him past.

For Stewart, the repairs -- which included his crew taking a crowbar to the front of the ride -- worked. He restarted 32nd after the incident and, within 70 miles he had trekked all the way to 13th. Gordon restarted 37th and had made it only to 29th when, almost halfway through the race, Jeff Green went careening on the apron and spun back up the race track in Turn 3. Green said Dale Jarrett had punted him from behind sending him onto the Turn 3 apron and from there he was just trying to hold on.

Gordon ran through the grass between Turns 3 and 4 to avoid the four-car wreckage and ran over debris. He had already lost third gear from the incident with Stewart and the crew was concerned that he'd lose his transmission because of his latest mishap. With this jaunt through the grass, he added a busted tire to his list of problems. That's part of the reason why, while Stewart managed to battle back all the way to second by the halfway point of the race, Gordon was still back in 29th.

Stewart then made contact with Kenseth on lap 107 and sent Kenseth into the grass near Turn 3. Kenseth had led four different times for a race-leading 28 laps at that point. Kenseth tried to steer straight through the grass, lost control and spun up the track. Everyone managed to steer clear of Kenseth's 17 Ford, but Kenseth was stewing.

"I had a winning race car," he told his crew chief over the radio. " … They better penalize that freaking Stewart."

Stewart said the bump was retaliation for Kenseth knocking Stewart loose at the start of the race.

"I guess Matt didn't think anything when he got me sideways over in [Turn] 2 earlier," Stewart said. "He should have thought about that first, he got back what he started in the first place."

NASCAR penalized Stewart for aggressive driving, sending him to the tail end of the lead lap. Kenseth didn't think it was a severe enough penalty for, in his mind, ruining Kenseth's legitimate chance to win. Kenseth decided to take matters into his own hands and gave Stewart's car a little nudge during the last caution lap before the race went back under green. NASCAR penalized Kenseth for the move, mandating that he pass through pit road at 55 mph while his competitors raced on the track at 190 mph.

Kenseth waited a lap before complying, insisting that he did nothing wrong and demanding a clarification from NASCAR on the penalty. Though Kenseth would finally make his pass-through on pit road, NASCAR discounted the circuit Kenseth completed before complying with the penalty, instantly putting the driver a lap down.

Going from vying for first to sitting in worst, Team 17 wasn't pleased.

"Tony took me out intentionally," Kenseth said. "There was no two ways about that. He was mad because earlier in the race when I passed him he got loose, which I didn't think I did anything wrong. I thought I left him plenty of room. That's the same way he raced. I actually learned that from him, racing here close to people."

After the two drivers took their respective penalties, Stewart was 20th and Kenseth 37th. But when another caution came out shortly after the restart, Stewart's bad day continued. He pulled in too close to his pit stall to get a good stop in and when he tried to leave, he ran over his jack. So not only did he have to come back in and re-pit, but was penalized by NASCAR for running over equipment in his pit stall and had to drop to the tail end of the lead lap, meaning 30th position.

Stewart once more began a climb back to the front of the pack, but on the way he got a shove from Kyle Busch. Stewart saved his car before it spun and only lost a couple of spots. Meanwhile, NASCAR penalized Busch for aggressive driving.

It apparently didn't matter that Stewart kept getting slowed by on-track contact and other drivers' wrecks which brought out cautions. He had moved up into the top 15 with 50 miles remaining in regulation and emerged in seventh with four laps to go in regulation. When the green flag dropped for the two-lap overtime, Stewart finagled two more spots and finished fifth.

Afterward, he said with all the action on the race track, his pit crew was critical to his performance.

"Just a good pit crew," he said as the reason for his top five. "They did a great job in the pits, a great job fixing [the car]. They kept digging."

Gordon's crew dug deep, too, but while he managed to emerge as high as 11th over the waning laps, his car was constantly giving him problems after his two on-track incidents. He had to pit just before the overtime began and dropped out of the top 30 for the restart. Finishing 26th was all he could muster.

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.