Stewart in command at New Hampshire

Tony Stewart says New Hampshire International Speedway didn't owe him one, but the Indiana native was still grateful that rain intervened as he ran low on gas in the waning laps of a 300-miler here today

Stewart in command at New Hampshire

NASCAR threw in the towel during the second rain-initiated red flag period of the day, just 27 laps short of the finish, and reportedly eight laps shy of a dry fuel cell in Stewart's Pontiac.

"We had the best car today so I don't feel the least bit guilty winning this way," said a relieved Stewart when NASCAR decided the race could not restart.

Stewart ran dry running for the chequered flag in 1999 and dominated more than half of Sunday's race, run under the pall of the death of Kenny Irwin, a rival who Stewart said "challenged me to drive better."

Rounding out the top five were former race-winner Joe Nemechek, Mark Martin, Jerry Nadeau in his career-best finish and Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner in New England.

Dale Earnhardt gained a handful of championship points on Bobby Labonte, finishing sixth to Labonte's ninth. The seven-time champ trails at the start of the second half of NASCAR's season by just 45 points thanks to 15 top-ten finishes.

The decision to not restart the race a second time stymied Martin's fuel strategy. It's believed he was the only top contender who could make it the full distance after a lap 202 gas stop.

The early laps were led by improbable front-runners. Local hero Ricky Craven stormed from fifth to the front by lap three and held the position through lap 66. Craven, backed by an underfunded team, had not led a lap in competition for more than a year. Replacing him at the front was Geoffrey Bodine, who learned flat tracks such as this one-mile oval in NASCAR's Modified Tour. Bodine's team is losing a sponsor and the New York native hadn't led since his near-death experience in a truck race at Daytona in February. He led 20 laps before pitting on lap 85. Craven finished 17th and Bodine 13th.

Both cars and nine others failed to pit with the rest of the field after a lap 29 opportunity, setting up parallel but separate pit cycles for the field. The one group came in when the yellow flag waved for a Mike Skinner wreck, aided by a bump from Bobby Hamilton. It was the second caution of the race, not as hard as the first on lap six. Chad Little and Terry Labonte were side by side in turn four when Little's Ford wobbled and both cars went hard into the wall. Labonte, nursing a broken leg bone he sustained the previous week at Daytona, escaped flames that erupted from his Chevrolet and limped across the track. Little's collision looked less serious but he was taken to the hospital for tests, nonetheless.

Jimmy Spencer was also injured in smoking hard contact on lap 99 between turns one and two after a tyre went flat. He hopped on one leg from his smoking car, adding weight to the notion that the track owners may need to install softer barriers after Friday's fatal accident in practice by Irwin (see separate story).

The real race got underway when the green waved on lap 108. Those cars on the main pit cycle - the usual suspects - were dicing for the lead. But Mother Nature had other plans.

A rain yellow was thrown on lap 125 as Stewart paced the field, with Nadeau, Labonte, Martin and Earnhardt in tow. Nemechek ran sixth while the triple winners, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon, fought for 10th.

Just before NASCAR threw the red flag for heavier rain on lap 131, Labonte ducked into the pits for tyres and fuel. That put him 27th in the halted line of cars, while Stewart, Nadeau, Martin and chief points competitor Earnhardt headed the field.

The time-out lasted 50 minutes, and when racing resumed it was for the halfway - an official race - as more rain threatened to move in. Betting on a rainout, the leaders didn't pit. It didn't rain.

As the 300 lap marker approached, Stewart began a pit cycle that brought in all the cars but those of Mark Martin and Jeff Burton. Both Roush Racing cars pitted so late it was conceivable they could run to the end without a gas stop.

Rain brought out the caution on lap 266 and it was good news in every event for Stewart. He needed fuel to finish and would lose less track position under caution... Heavy rain would end the race, the red flag stopping the field with 28 laps to go.

1, Tony Stewart (Pontiac), 272 laps
2, Joe Nemechek (Chevrolet), 272
3, Mark Martin (Ford), 272
4, Jerry Nadeau (Chevrolet), 272
5, Jeff Gordon (Chevrolet), 272
6, Dale Earnhardt (Chevrolet), 272
7, Dale Jarrett (Ford), 272
8, Jeremy Mayfield (Ford), 272
9, Bobby Labonte (Pontiac), 272
10, Ricky Rudd (Ford) 272

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