"Introducing the Defending Race Winner!" ATLANTA (June 8, 2004) - A win at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway may not have the cachet of winning a Daytona 500 or a Brickyard 400, but it does carry an equal amount of satisfaction simply because it's a hard...
"Introducing the Defending Race Winner!"
ATLANTA (June 8, 2004) - A win at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway may not have the cachet of winning a Daytona 500 or a Brickyard 400, but it does carry an equal amount of satisfaction simply because it's a hard place to master. Just ask Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet and defending race winner of the Pocono 500.
Stewart earned the 16th of his 17 career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series victories and his first of the 2003 season in last year's Pocono 500. After posting two top-fives and seven top-10s in his eight previous visits to Pocono, Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team finally hit on a chassis setup that complemented Pocono's unique layout.
The track is best described as a 2.5-mile triangle, with none of its three corners alike. It begins with an enormously long front straightaway that dumps into a tight, semi-banked corner. Upon leaving turn one and shooting down another straightaway, drivers are subjected to the tunnel turn, a very narrow half-corner. If unscathed, drivers exit the tunnel turn and speed down a third straightaway, only to negotiate another tight corner. Turn three is the final turn of the track, and with little banking, drivers must feather the throttle to get the balance and grip they need to race down that long front straightaway all over again.
Stewart's June win, where he led five times for 37 laps - including the final 10 - looked to be bookended by a repeat victory when the series returned to Pocono in July. There, Stewart came from 33rd to first by lap 98. He paced the field twice for 15 laps before his engine detonated less than 50 laps short of the scheduled 200-lap distance.
As disappointing as the run was, it again showcased the #20 team's penchant for finding the fastest route around Pocono. And come Sunday, soon after the public address announcer introduces Stewart as the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet and defending race winner of the Pocono 500, Stewart will attempt to do what only Jeff Gordon, the late Tim Richmond and Bobby Allison have done - win back-to-back Pocono 500s.
(Gordon won back-to-back Pocono 500s in 1996 and 1997, Richmond did it in 1986 and 1987 and Allison did it in 1982 and 1983. - Ed.)
How satisfying was your win at Pocono last June?
"It was pretty neat. We had good pit strategy, great pit stops and a great race car. We had all of the variables we needed to win. We'd been close a couple of other times at Pocono, but it seemed like late in the race other variables would creep up and we'd lose it. But last year everything came together just right, and it felt good to finally finish one off."
When you won at Pocono last June, how much adjusting did you have to do to the chassis during the race?
"We just had to keep freeing it up. We were pretty tight at the beginning of the race, but we wanted it that way to make sure we were on the safe side because the track was so green. As the race went on, we just kept freeing the car up. It was real tight on entry and we kept making some good changes and the car kept responding to it. We just kept sneaking up on it, even though we never got all the way there. But the guys on the pit crew got us track position and we were able to run our pace, not everybody else's pace."
With track position being so critical, how important was your pit crew in helping you earn your first win at Pocono?
"It won us the race. The crew won the race - not me. I just did my part by driving. They got me in position on that stop toward the end where we went back to green. I was able to run my pace, and not abuse the front tires chasing down the leader. I could run the way I wanted to run and lift the way I wanted to lift and do everything my way instead of trying to push hard and run those guys down. When it came time to come in and make our green-flag stop for fuel, they had another great pit stop. We got out ahead of Sterling (Marlin) and Mark (Martin), and the biggest thing was just getting right back into my rhythm. They had two really good stops right there at the end of the race that put us in victory lane."
If you're down on horsepower at Pocono, are you pretty much out of contention?
"Yeah. If you're down on power at Pocono you're a mid-pack car at best. You need power to go down that front straightaway, and if you don't have it, you're done."
How hard is Pocono on engines?
"Pocono is tough on engines because you're in the gas so long and you're shifting and you're up in that rpm range for a very, very long time. It's definitely a place that makes the engine builders nervous."
Explain a lap around Pocono.
"Turn one is probably the easiest of the three, but you've got the challenge of having to downshift in the middle of 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. With it being line-sensitive and the fact that we've got a straightaway that's three-quarters of a mile long after that, 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."
Because no corner at Pocono is alike, do you have to give up handling in one corner to make yourself better in another?
"With Pocono's three corners, you're normally able to get two out of three, and the third one you struggle with a little bit. But we're starting to get to where we're right in all three corners now. With Pocono being as big as it is, you just have to really work hard and know how much momentum plays a role on that race track. 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."
"It's a three-turn road course. You're shifting like you do on a road course and it has three unique corners. For the most part, it doesn't have the big banked corners and two and three grooves like you typically see. The only turn that has that is turn one at the end of the straightaway."
"It just makes you focus and concentrate really hard. The tunnel turn is line-sensitive. You can't go down in there and miss your marks and expect to run a good corner through there. It's a very technical track. It makes you really focus on all three corners, and the hardest thing is getting the car to drive well in all three. That's the challenge. It seems like I always get two of the three fairly easily, but it seems like the third corner is the one I have trouble with. But in all reality, it doesn't matter which corner it is on the race track, it just seems like on every lap you're off on one of the three corners at least a little bit. That's the challenging part about Pocono."
Coming down that front straightaway the racing can get pretty wide. When and where do you have to get back in line to make it into that first corner?
"It just kind of funnels itself back into line before we get into (turn) one. Everybody tries to get back on the high side to make their entry into the corner, but sometimes it does get a little tight in there. But most times, you just do what you have to do to get The Home Depot Chevrolet back in line."
What's the most treacherous part of Pocono's layout?
"Probably the tunnel turn. Everybody realizes how fast they're going into (turn) one. And they know that if they wreck they're going to wreck hard. The tunnel turn is a little sneaky. It's a tight fit through there, and you don't really know how fast you're going until something bad happens."