He learned how a master attacks the treacherous .533-mile
oval; he learned just how far you sometimes have to go to win at Bristol; and he learned
that no matter how hard you try, sometimes you absolutely cannot avoid other people's
Unfortunately, his education was rather hands-on.
Stewart dominated the first half of the event, leading from lap 27 until the halfway
point, when he fell behind on a pit stop. Even after that, he was never far from the lead,
and often appeared to have the best car on the track.
But over the closing 100 laps, he was faced with one of the toughest tasks in all of
racing: getting around Dale Earnhardt when the Intimidator smells a win.
Stewart tried over and over to get around the black No. 3, but every time Earnhardt
shut the door. If he could have gotten around the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series
champion, he might well have challenged then-leader Terry Labonte for his first series
He never got around Earnhardt.
"It's always fun racing him," Stewart said. "I can't think of a better
guy I'd rather race for the win than him. If you can beat him for your first win that
means a lot."
Earnhardt, meanwhile, gave Stewart credit for being a talented driver, but claimed that
he never felt threatened by the bright orange Pontiac in his rearview mirror.
"I was in front of him," Earnhardt said when asked about racing the rookie.
"I didn't get to race side-by-side with him. I'm sure he was eager to win his first
race, but he didn't get beside me any so I was comfortable."
Once Earnhardt had subdued Stewart, he charged after Labonte, and that battle cost
Stewart more than any struggle that he was directly involved in.
The two veterans swapped the lead repeatedly over the final stretches of the race, but
the final swap had a lot of take and not much give. Earnhardt -- intentionally or
accidentally, depending upon whom you ask -- bumped Labonte and put the No. 5 in the wall
in Turns 3 and 4 for his ninth career win at Bristol.
Stewart checked up to avoid the wreck, and not only lost two positions in the shuffle,
but also came out with a dinged-up race car. Even after a cool-off session inside the Home
Depot hauler, Stewart still had a little steam coming out of his ears about the incident.
"I'm one of those people when I get mad, nobody wants to be around me for five
minutes, 10 minutes," Stewart said. "I guess if I wasn't mad like that Joe Gibbs
wouldn't want me driving his race car and I wouldn't be as competitive as I am.
"It's just hard," Stewart said. "It's hard when you work that hard to
stay clean all day. Then to have it end like that is just hard to swallow."