Originally created 09/13/99

Rookie Stewart makes breathrough



RICHMOND, Va. -- The victory Tony Stewart and everyone else who has watched him during his rookie season knew was inevitable still left the driver tongue-tied.

"I wish I knew what to say," NASCAR's newly validated superstar said after winning the Exide 400 on Saturday night. "You plan all your life for this.

"This is the first time I'm speechless."

Hampered early by slower pit stops than the rest of the leaders, Stewart made up for them with a dominant car that took the suspense out of the outcome on a track where side-by-side racing is the norm and the finishes are usually thrilling.

His crew also rose to the occasion at the end, putting together a blistering stop with 95 laps to go that allowed him -- finally -- to leave the pits with the lead he brought in under one of the six cautions that slowed the race. And they did it even as Jeff Gordon's vaunted Rainbow Warriors had a 16-second stop.

Stewart became only the sixth Winston Cup rookie to win in his first year and only the second driver to gain his first career victory on the three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway oval. Kyle Petty was the first, 13 years ago.

"I love this Virginia race track, that's for sure," Stewart said in Victory Lane. "We never changed a screw all night. All we did was adjust air pressure."

Stewart's Joe Gibbs Pontiac teammate, Bobby Labonte, took advantage of lapped traffic to close in on Stewart with about 20 laps to go, but the 1997 Indy Racing League champion used the slower cars to his advantage to keep Labonte at bay.

"I was concerned about the lapped cars at the end, but I appreciate all the guys' professionalism," Stewart said. "They really let Bobby and me race."

Labonte finished second, 1.114 seconds behind, giving Pontiac its first one-two finish since Rusty Wallace and Petty in 1993 at North Wilkesboro.

"Best run I've ever had here," Labonte said. "We got right up to him at the end of the race, but he was just too good when we were clear of traffic."

Stewart did several donuts after clinching the victory, then drove the wrong way around the track in the first victory lap of his NASCAR career.

"This is one of the great nights. I'm so proud of Tony," Gibbs said in Victory Lane. "I couldn't be happier. It was one of the big thrills of my life."

Points leader Dale Jarrett bounced back from two off weeks that cut his 314-point lead almost in half by finishing third, boosting his lead over Mark Martin back to 270 points. Martin had engine trouble with 35 laps left and finished 35th.

"It's nice to gain some points again," Jarrett said. "It shows what kind of race team this is. They bounced back from the last two weeks and they bounced back from the first half of a race that wasn't that great and continued to battle."

Gordon, who ran in the top five for the first 305 laps, lost his clutch right after losing the race out of the pits and went to the garage shortly thereafter. He failed to finish for the sixth time this season and wound up 40th.

Sterling Marlin was fourth, followed by Kenny Irwin and Dale Earnhardt.

Stewart led 333 laps, including the last 144. He averaged 104.006 mph and also moved into fourth place in the point standings, passing Jeff Burton. The defending race champion contended for most of the night, but faded late to finish 13th.

The race featured six cautions for 45 laps, ending with 89 green-flag laps.

Stewart became the 11th different winner in the last 11 Winston Cup races on tracks shorter than a mile, a streak that started last March at Bristol.