Tony Stewart had some inside information.
The NASCAR Winston Cup rookie never raced a stock car on the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway until Sunday. But that was merely a detail to the precocious 28-year-old.
"Between the midgets, Silver Crown and the IRL, I've run all kinds of cars here," Stewart said happily after matching the late Davey Allison's 1987 rookie record with his second victory of the season.
"I never would have thought we could have won one race," said Stewart, who previously won in Richmond, Va., on Sept. 11. "We knew the team was capable, but I didn't think they had a driver who knew how to win this year."
But his knowledge of the Phoenix track definitely gave him an edge on Sunday.
"I have two midget wins, one Silver Crown win, one super modified win, and twice I've been second in IRL races," the former U.S. Auto Club short track ace and 1997 Indy Racing League champion said. "Those different series have helped me learn the racing lines here.
"I knew the inside wall and the outside wall and the track's sweet spots," he added after pulling away from Mark Martin to win the Checker Auto Parts-Dura Lube 500k by nearly the length of a straightaway. "I knew where to loosen it up and where to tighten it up."
Stewart started 11th in the 43-car field and took control of the 500-kilometer race on the 159th of 312 laps.
The only time Stewart trailed the rest of the way was during a green-flag pit stop sequence. But even the stops worked in his favor as his Joe Gibbs Racing crew got him in and out in a hurry.
"They won that race for us in the pits," he said. "On the last stop (on lap 268), we went from a second and a half ahead to three seconds ahead. That's a long lead on this track. When you have Mark Martin in your mirrors, chasing you hard, you need all the edge you can get. That big lead made me feel a lot more comfortable."
Stewart's Pontiac beat Martin's Ford to the finish line by 2.081 seconds.
Jarrett led 50 of the first 148 laps. Then came trouble for the 42-year-old son of two-time series champion Ned Jarrett.
The firsof only two caution flags in the race waved on lap 121 when Brett Bodine cut down a tire and tagged the wall. On the ensuing restart, Jarrett was right behind Martin when the latter couldn't get up to speed immediately because of a failed ignition.
Jarrett slammed into the rear of Martin's car at the head of a long line of traffic, but they were both able to get up to speed after a brief hesitation.
"It's a good thing that was Dale Jarrett behind me," Martin said. "I was able to switch to the other ignition box and took off."
Jarrett grabbed the lead back on lap 129, two laps after the restart, but the incident eventually caused a near disaster for the No. 88 team.
On lap 149, Jarrett began to lose ground. The next lap, he slowed on the backstretch, his right front tire going flat, apparently from the contact with Martin.
He pitted for right side tires and his Robert Yates Racing crew got Jarrett back onto the track a lap down, but just barely behind leaders Andretti and Stewart.
Jarrett, now 26th, went after the leaders, passing Stewart on lap 158 and then drove past Andretti on lap 159 as Stewart followed him by to take the lead.
After that, Jarrett just kept moving through the pack. After the last caution of the day, brought out by Sterling Marlin's blown engine on lap 182, insured Jarrett of staying on the lap, he was able to move back among the leaders.
"It was just one of those things that I've been talking about," Jarrett said. "I was sitting there leading the race and the car's in great shape and we have a flat tire.
"You lose a lap and then it's a struggle from there. But the guys did a fantastic job in the pits gaining us some positions."
Jarrett can wrap up the $2 million title simply by finishing eighth or better next week, or by finishing ninth and getting the five-point bonus for leading at least one lap. Even if he has a bad day in Homestead, all Jarrett has to do to win is finish 30th or better in each of the last two races to close out Labonte.
"Bobby gained a few points on us, but not too many," Jarrett said. "We got to Homestead next week and do our job and, if we finish in the top 10, that should pretty much do it for us."
Labonte, who finished third, just ahead of Jeff Burton and Andretti, said, "I have no idea what the (points) lead is. If we go to Miami and run good, it'll take care of itself."
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