TONY STEWART Long-Term Gains Since Last Stop in Long Pond KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 28, 2010) - Six races have passed since the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last raced at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., and ironically, six races remain before the ...
Long-Term Gains Since Last Stop in Long Pond
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 28, 2010) - Six races have passed since the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last raced at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., and ironically, six races remain before the top-12 drivers in points will vie for this year's championship as part of the 10-race Chase.
When Tony Stewart came to Pocono on June 6 for round 14 on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule, he was an uncharacteristic 16th in the championship standings, 27 points out of the ever-important top-12. His best finish was a second-place effort in March at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and he had just three other top-10 finishes. It was a stark contrast to the first 13 races of 2009, where in Stewart's inaugural year as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing, he had six top-fives, nine top-10s, was leading the championship standings and was about to log his first point-paying win as a driver/owner at Pocono.
Stewart wasn't happy, and he knew that he needed a spark to get his 2010 season going if he was going to make the 12-driver Chase for a sixth time.
That spark came on lap 160 of the Pocono 500. Crew chief Darian Grubb rolled the dice and made a gutsy call to top off the fuel cell of Stewart's No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala with just enough gas to get him to the finish. No matter what anyone else did, Stewart was going to stay out and earn valuable track position while those ahead of him with thirstier racecars would later pit for fuel.
The strategy worked to near perfection. When the race restarted on lap 166, Stewart was in 16th. When another caution came out three laps afterward, many of those in front of Stewart headed to pit road for enough gas to get them to the finish. Stewart rose to second, and as the field ambled around the vast and quirky 2.5-mile triangle while under caution, it bought Stewart better fuel mileage and enough cushion in case the race went into overtime with a green-white-checkered finish.
With 10 laps to go, the two-time Sprint Cup champion appeared to have second-place in hand, but just as the field was coming to take the final lap, Kevin Harvick spun Joey Logano in turn three to bring out the race's final caution and set up a green-white-checkered finish.
It was not the outcome Stewart and Co., wanted to see, for now they'd have to stretch their fuel mileage even further and work hard to hold off any challenges for second.
When the green flag dropped for the final time, Stewart pursued leader Denny Hamlin hard, knowing that he had to go all-out, for Kyle Busch was going to do the same behind him for second. While Stewart made Hamlin earn it, Hamlin nonetheless pulled away. Busch, meanwhile, snuck past Stewart, and that's how they finished when the checkered flag dropped; Hamlin first, Busch second, Stewart third.
Stewart's best run since Bristol moved him up to 13th in points, just one point outside the top-12. And in the six races since, Stewart has finished outside the top-10 only once while nabbing three top-fives, including a second-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon - round one in the Chase on Sept. 19.
As Stewart returns to Pocono for Sunday's Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500, he is a healthy ninth in points with a 160-point margin over 13th-place Mark Martin - the first driver currently on the outside looking in at the Chase.
Fresh off a solid fifth-place finish last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart aims to maintain his front-running ways to further solidify his Chase standing and notch his first victory of 2010.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Can you put your finger on what's turned the performance of your race team around?
"I think it's just the work everybody has been doing. You know, it's kind of weird how last year we started off the season really well, literally the first half of the year was right on pace with what we were looking for. Then four or five weeks before the Chase started, we started falling off and then really we were struggling during the Chase. It was kind of frustrating from that standpoint and we couldn't really put our finger on what we were doing differently and what we were doing wrong that was causing us to not have that kind of performance. It seems like this year we got a slow start and it seems like now we're picking it up, so hopefully we're having the polar opposite of what we had last year. We're going to start slow and finish strong this year. I just think it's due to everybody's work at the shop. There is one thing about our guys - they just don't quit. They don't give up. They're all racers. We've got a lot of guys that have come from Sprint car racing or Modified racing or running pavement Late Models across the country. It's neat to have a shop full of what I call true racers - people that race because they love racing and we're all lucky that we get paid to do it. That's just the mentality of good racers. If things get tough, they don't give up. They sit there and sort it out and try to figure out what it is they have to do to make it better, and that's what our guys have done. They keep digging in and keep trying, and I think the results the last couple of weeks have shown that."
Is there any one thing in particular you've had to work to overcome this season?
"We were definitely fighting handling, for sure. That was the one variable we were struggling with there. We've been working through it at the shop and we're finding some things that are giving us a direction that seems to be a positive direction for us, and we've just been continuing down that path. It doesn't mean it will fix it, but at least it's a path right now that's getting us going better in the standings and getting my cars to handle a little better. It's a lot less frustrating driving them on Sunday when they handle well."
There's school of thought that if you run well at Indianapolis, you'll run well at Pocono and vice versa. Is that still the case?
"It used to be that if you ran well at Pocono then you had a good shot at running well at Indy. I don't know if it's still correlated the last couple years with the new car. The thing about Indy is that it's glass smooth. It's got a couple little bumps here and there, but you go to Pocono and it's rough and bumpy. The setups are quite a bit different now."
Your win at Pocono last June came in a fuel mileage race. Can you explain what you did to make sure you had enough fuel to go the distance while many of your competitors did not?
"I've lost a lot more races like that than I've won. It was between Carl (Edwards) and I. We were the strongest two cars at the end of the race and we were able to get the track position we needed. Our guys did a great job of getting us out of the pits in the lead and that gave us the opportunity to make Carl push harder in the beginning to get the lead. Once he went into that fuel conservation mode, we had to follow suit. To be in a situation where your speed is dictated off the guy behind you and not off of what you can do, it's a different style of racing. It's hard. It's just as hard, if not tougher, than trying to run 100 percent."
Explain a lap around Pocono.
"Turn one is probably the easiest of the three - you drive it in kind of deep and then try to float the car through the corner. You go down the backstretch and into the tunnel turn and it's basically one lane. It's flat and very line-sensitive. You've got to make sure you're right on your marks every lap when you go through there. Then you've got a short chute into turn three. It's a big, long corner and it too is very line-sensitive. Add the fact that we've got a straightaway that's three-quarters of a mile long after that, and it's very important that you get through the last corner well. You need to come off the corner quickly so that you're not bogged down when you start down that long straightaway. Each corner has its challenges, and each one tends to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you make."
From a driver's standpoint, what's your biggest challenge at Pocono?
"All three corners are different - that's the most challenging part. It seems like you can always get your car good in two of the three corners, but the guys who are contending for the win are the guys who can get their car good for all three corners, which is very hard to do. It seems like if we can get our car to go through the tunnel turn well, then we're normally able to get it to go through the rest of the racetrack well. The tunnel turn seems to be our toughest turn on the racetrack. Getting through turn two and the last corner of the racetrack that's flat, long and sweeping - those seem to be the toughest two corners to get through. And if you're a little bit off, you're a bunch off. If there's a guy who can get all three of those corners right, then that's the guy who's going to win the race."