Stewart takes win number five at Martinsville

Tony Stewart earned his fifth NASCAR Winston Cup win of the year - more than any other driver - after surviving a race with cautions measured in double digits at Martinsville. But thanks to the quirky points system, he sits fifth in the title race and is not in serious championship contention

Stewart takes win number five at Martinsville

Stewart led Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Burton, Ricky Rudd and Jeff Gordon to the chequered flag in an 11-lap sprint after the race's 13th caution.

"To beat Earnhardt and Jeff Burton here at Martinsville... well this was an unbelievable race for me," said the Indiana native.

NASCAR's never-ending Winston Cup season suddenly feels a bit short as the points contenders start to smell the big payout. That's why it's fitting that the oldest and shortest track on the schedule is run like a 500-lap sprint. One of those clawing for every point possible, Earnhardt, gained 36 on leader Bobby Labonte after finishing as high as he ever ran.

"I'd have liked to win, but second isn't bad," said a smiling Earnhardt. "Points is points. I tried hard to get to him (Stewart) but I didn't have enough."

Just staying second in the hunt, much less gaining on Labonte, was no small feat in a race once dominated by Burton and filled with opportunities for disaster. Burton trails Earnhardt by just 14 points, with Dale Jarrett 34 more in arrears. Stewart trails the leader by 413 - more than two maximum race scores.

One of two classic 'bullrings' remaining in a glitzy, high-tech arena age, Martinsville's 0.533-mile paperclip design is a test of brakes, patience, technology and luck. For instance, Rusty Wallace's tyre melted off the rim after he led the early laps, relegating him to a 23rd place finish.

But collision damage is the norm. A bump or nudge is how you win on a track lapped in 20 seconds or less. Some bumps are worse than others, and there were eight cautions by the halfway mark as Labonte did all he could to survive on the lead lap - to move on in what appears to be his season of destiny. The Pontiac pilot arrived at this obstacle course with a 249 point lead on seven-time champ Earnhardt.

Labonte survived the track, but not pit road, which is narrow and nearly snakes inside the entire oval. The field pitted after Bobby Hamilton's tyre spun off his car to bring out the ninth caution on lap 283 - and Labonte ploughed into Mike Skinner's car when the exit got clogged. While aerodynamics aren't critical on a track this small, losing vent hoses to his brakes and much of the right front of the car forced multiple pit stops and dropped the Texan to 26th. At that position, Earnhardt had dreams of a 60-point jump running 2nd - but 200 laps remained.

Prior to lap 400, the race never went 60 laps without a yellow. That appeared to be all the tyres could manage before the 700 horsepower machines started skating into one another or suffering failures. Teams experimented with no-tyre, two tyre and full-pit strategies for track position, with the latter seeming smartest. Earnhardt found his way to second place towards the end of two green flag cycles, but complained later that he was loose getting out of the turns. Rudd, Stewart and Burton had more predictable runs in the top three.

Labonte and his team proved they would earn a title if given a chance. During the long run that began on lap 367 after a spin-caution, the points leader patiently ran down the field and was up to ninth when another spin brought a caution with 35 laps to go. That put the top five points contenders in the top 10 as the field slowed.

In the most critical pit visit of the race, Sterling Marlin and Gordon took just two tyres for track position. Stewart, then Earnhardt, passed underneath, while Burton, Rudd and Marlin went three-wide in wild racing. Too wild, as Labonte spun a full circle but retained 10th, and Earnhardt Jr. hit the wall to bring out caution number 13 and a fire in his engine compartment. He escaped shaken but fine.

Stewart, the pole-sitter who still maintained he really disliked this kind of track, had a handful of caution laps to readjust his affections awaiting the final green flag with 11 laps to go.

Stewart got a jump from Earnhardt, who had Burton in his rear-view mirror. Burton nudged the Intimidator with two laps to go, then both settled down when it was clear Stewart was the class of the field. The young Pontiac campaigner won his first race from the pole and eighth of his still fledgling (62 race) NASCAR career.

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