Timing is everything for Stewart in Pocono

Tony Stewart’s Pocono statistics have already been highlighted, and his Indianapolis numbers are just as robust: two wins in 14 starts, a pole and only two finishes outside the top-12.

KANNAPOLIS, N.C.– Timing is everything. It’s a simple proverb that in NASCAR is an inherent truth. Perhaps no one knows this better than Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion earned his third title in 2011 because his timing was impeccable. Five wins in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup propelled Stewart from ninth when the Chase started to first when it ended. Winless in the 26 races prior to the Chase, Stewart found his groove when it mattered most.

Last Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Stewart again displayed his knack for timing.

In the 12 Sprint Cup races prior to Dover, Stewart had only two top-10s with a season-best finish of seventh the race before at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. He was mired an uncharacteristic 20th in points, and with Dover serving as Round No. 13 on the 36-race schedule, conventional wisdom said that Stewart was in for more frustration. In his last five races at Dover, Stewart’s best finish was 20th.

But with 12 laps to go in the 400-lap race around the mile-long, concrete oval, Stewart was in second place, reeling in leader Juan Pablo Montoya. On lap 398, Stewart passed the former Formula 1 race winner and drove off to his 48th career Sprint Cup win and his third at Dover, extending his streak of winning at least one race in each of his 15 years in Sprint Cup – the longest such streak among active drivers.

The victory vaulted Stewart to 16th in the championship standings, placing him only 33 points outside the top-10. And as the only driver between 11th and 20th in points with a victory, Stewart is on track to make the 12-driver Chase because he currently holds the first of two wild card spots awarded to a race winner outside the top-10 but among the top-20 in points.

Stewart’s win at Dover reminded everyone he’s still a threat to win no matter the circumstances. It was also a reminder that summer has begun. Of Stewart’s 48 career Sprint Cup victories, only six have come before June.

Now Pocono (Pa.) Raceway is next up for Stewart, a track where he has won twice, each time in June (2003 and 2009).

The 2.5-mile triangular layout is aptly called the “Tricky Triangle”. It’s proven troublesome for some, but not for Stewart, who came to NASCAR from the open-wheel ranks of USAC and the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Designed by two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rodger Ward, Pocono is unlike any other track in the world, and it’s a throwback to Indy car venues of old. Its three different corners are each modeled after a different track. Turn one, which is banked at 14 degrees, is modeled after the now-closed Trenton (N.J.) Speedway. Turn two, banked at eight degrees, is a nod to the turns at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And turn three, banked at six degrees, is modeled after the corners at The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis.

While the track is relatively flat, Stewart’s statistics at Pocono are not. In addition to his two wins, he has two poles, 11 top-fives, 20 top-10s and has led 156 laps. In 28 career Sprint Cup starts at Pocono, Stewart’s average start is 12.4 and his average finish is 11.3. He consistently ranks among the top-five in NASCAR loop data statistics and has the fifth-best overall driver rating at Pocono (98.6). In the last 16 races at Pocono, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson share the best average finishing position (9.4).

That Pocono, with its turn two and long straightaways, is akin to Indianapolis bodes well for Stewart. He’ll race his No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS at Indianapolis in July, and then return to Pocono in August for the series’ second visit to the “Tricky Triangle”.

The two venues account for three of the 13 races before the Chase begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Stewart’s Pocono statistics have already been highlighted, and his Indianapolis numbers are just as robust: two wins in 14 starts, a pole and only two finishes outside the top-12.

As history has proven, Stewart’s timing is excellent. Coming into Pocono with back-to-back top-10s has put Stewart back into Chase contention. Just as summer is heating up, the race for the Chase is too. And like clockwork, so is Stewart.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

How big was last weekend’s win at Dover for you and the team? “It’s big, and it definitely gives us some momentum. We got two weeks of momentum under our belts now at two totally different racetracks. That’s big, because momentum is huge in this sport. We still have a lot of work to do, but we won’t sit. I guarantee you none of these guys will tell you we’re exactly where we want to be right now.

It’s a good reward for how hard they’ve been working to get that first win of the year. Now it’s trying to be more consistent and stay in the top-10 more and make our program better. It’s proof that no matter how bad it’s been this year, none of these guys have quit and given up, and I’m really proud of that fact.”

You tested at Pocono last week. What is the biggest difference you noticed with the track, given the new pavement has aged a year and that this is the first Pocono race with the sixth-generation (Gen-6) racecar? “It’s probably lost some grip, but that will make for some better racing.

You can see rubber getting into the racetrack, and that was with just a few laps around the track. To me, that’s very positive. The pace slowing down will make for better racing, for sure. The track surface really held up well over the winter. It didn’t shift a lot. It’s still smooth as glass.”

How much has the new pavement affected what works for you as a driver at Pocono? “The thing about Pocono – it’s definitely unique. It’s got its own personality, but now that it’s been repaved and all the little nuances and tricks you learned when it was rougher and the tunnel turn was more aggressive – a lot of those things are gone. For us, we’re still learning it, or relearning it.”

This will be Danica Patrick’s first race at Pocono. How do you see her doing and how much do you see her leaning on you and SHR teammate Ryan Newman for help? “Now that it’s been repaved, it’s a good time for her to come in here. I think it’s a little more clear-cut what to do.

This track – there’s parts of it you treat like a road course, and she’s got a huge road-racing background. She understands the concept of what it takes to have a good lap here and carry speed here.

There may be things that we ask her before it’s all said and done that may help us as drivers. I think people underestimate how good she is right out of the box at tracks and how good she is at figuring out racetracks. We haven’t had to do a lot of coaching with her. Her input is as good as ours is right out of the box. Her feedback is so strong.

You can tell right away that her mind is a sponge. She absorbs a lot of information very quickly. If we see something that is drastically wrong, you grab her and take her off to the side and talk to her. But you really don’t do a lot of that with her. She figures it out pretty quick.”

Winning by maximizing fuel mileage has been a theme at Pocono. Your win at Pocono four years ago 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 me.

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.”

Stewart-Haas Racing

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Tags nascar-cup, pocono, stewart.chevrolet