TONY STEWART: DRIVER, OWNER... MAGICIAN Office Depot/Old Spice Team Rallies from Setback to Score Solid Fifth-Place Finish at Fontana Tony Stewart pulled a rabbit out of the hat in Sunday's Pepsi 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club...
TONY STEWART: DRIVER, OWNER... MAGICIAN
Office Depot/Old Spice Team Rallies from Setback to Score Solid Fifth-Place Finish at Fontana
Tony Stewart pulled a rabbit out of the hat in Sunday's Pepsi 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., rallying his way to a fifth-place finish after a pit road speeding penalty dropped him to 30th with less than 90 laps remaining.
"I'm really proud of Darian Grubb (crew chief) and all the guys on this Office Depot/Old Spice team," said Stewart after scoring his series-leading 15th top-five finish of the season. "We weren't quite as good as we wanted to be today. It shows there is no quit in this team at all. We just keep digging. We got our car good at the end of the day."
Stewart started 20th in the 250-lap event and radioed to Grubb early on that his Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet was tight in the center of each corner and loose exiting the turns. Throughout the first 100 laps, Grubb adjusted the car's handling through a series of tire pressure and wedge adjustments, while Stewart fluctuated between 10th- and 16th-place.
By the 200-mile mark, Stewart felt the car wasn't rolling through the center of the corner as well as he would've liked, so on a lap-163 pit stop under green, Grubb called for four tires, fuel and a tire pressure and chassis adjustment.
The good news following the stop was that Stewart radioed Grubb to tell him that his No. 14 Chevrolet Impala SS was the best it had been all day. The bad news was that Grubb had to tell Stewart that NASCAR officials clocked him too fast exiting pit road, and he would be forced to serve a drive-through penalty at the assigned 55 mph pit road speed limit.
Stewart came back to pit road on lap 167 to serve his penalty, and when he returned to the 2-mile oval, he was in 30th position, one lap behind the leaders.
The race had been caution-free since lap 122, and Stewart knew he needed a caution quickly if he had any chance of salvaging the race, and possibly his championship hopes.
On lap 186, NASCAR officials called for a caution due to debris, and while the leaders pitted one lap later for four tires and fuel, Stewart opted to stay out in order to receive the "wave around," which meant he and several other cars would be waved around the pace car prior to the restart to get back on the lead lap.
The downside to the wave-around rule is that the cars that get back on the lead lap do not get to pit, so Stewart and Grubb found themselves out of sequence with the leaders. They also knew they would need another caution rather quickly in order to pit for much needed tires and fuel.
The racing gods obliged as Denny Hamlin spun on the lap-190 restart and Stewart was able to pit for four tires and fuel under the subsequent caution period on lap 192. From there, Stewart restarted 19th on lap 195 and began picking his way toward the front, moving up to 13th by lap 224.
It was then when things began to get even more interesting for the two-time Sprint Cup champion. Because Stewart pitted about 10 laps later than all the other leaders, he stayed out later than all the other cars as the final pit cycle began on lap 225.
By lap 229, Stewart was leading, but knew he was about 12 laps short on fuel and would have to pit again. The decision was made to pit for four tires and fuel on lap 234 and try to gain as many positions as possible by the time the checkered flag dropped on lap 250.
Just after Stewart pitted, the yellow caution flag flew for debris. It bought him some time to regain the track position lost while he stayed out on older tires as other drivers ran faster lap times on fresher rubber. Additionally, a handful of other drivers opted to pit, and since Stewart had already made his last stop of the race, he jumped to 11th-place when the race restarted on lap 239, primed to make his move toward the front.
Despite two late accidents, one of which was a multi-car melee which caused a 10-minute red flag period, Stewart managed to fight his way to fifth by the time the race ended.
"This team never quits and never will," Stewart said. "That's the attitude at Office Depot and Old Spice and everybody at U.S. Army, Coke, Chevrolet and Stewart-Haas Racing. It was a long day, for sure. We never got to the top-five there until the end. I'm really proud of our guys. Our car got better and better. In the run that we had the speeding penalty and had to come in and got a lap down, we were running lap times the same as the leader. We got the car better at the end, we just never got a chance to do anything until there in the end.
"I don't care what it takes. I don't care if we have to go 12 laps down and have the right side knocked off of it, if it gets us a top-five at the end of the day, that is what we have to do the rest of the season."
Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman, battled back from a cut tire early in the race to finish 15th in his No. 39 Haas Automation/U.S. Army Chevrolet. It was his seventh top-15 result in 14 career Sprint Cup starts at Fontana.
There were eight caution periods for 30 laps, with 12 drivers failing to finish the race.
Both Stewart-Haas Racing drivers are represented in this year's Chase for the Championship. Stewart remained fourth in the standings, but is now 84 points behind new Chase leader Johnson. Newman dropped one spot to 10th, 223 markers out of first.