Tony Stewart - Pocono Raceway: Like Nowhere Else On Earth
To say that Pocono (Pa.) Raceway is a unique racetrack might be a bit of an understatement.
The 2.5-mile triangular layout was designed by two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rodger Ward, and it has three different corners that were 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 a six degrees, is modeled after the corners at The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis.
It’s an anniversary of sorts for Pocono as 40 years ago this summer the late, great Mark Donohue won the first 500-mile race conducted at what has become known as the “Tricky Triangle.” But Donohue wasn’t driving in NASCAR competition during the July 3, 1971 Schafer 500, but rather in the USAC Champ Car Series – a forerunner to what is now known as the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Each corner has its challenges ...
What does any of this have to do with Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet team of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) as they prepare for this weekend’s 5-hour Energy 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono? Well, not really anything, except that not much has changed at Pocono since Donohue won 40 years ago in a Penske Racing-prepared McLaren/Offenhauser.
While the garage area has changed since the 70s and other minor adjustments have been made to the infrastructure at the facility, the challenge for man and machine remains no different than it was for Donohue, Joe Leonard, Gary Bettenhausen, Sammy Sessions and Jimmy Caruthers who were among the 33-driver field four decades ago.
Sprint Cup Series drivers began the pilgrimage to Pocono in 1974 and starting coming twice a year in 1982. And with each trip, crew chiefs and drivers have attempted to build and set-up a car capable of negotiating each of the three different turns as smoothly and as quickly as possible – a challenge unlike anywhere else on the 36-race schedule.
Twice in 24 career Sprint Cup starts at Pocono Stewart has found the proper combination in order to claim victory. He led 37 laps in June 2003 to score his first win at the 2.5-mile triangle while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. And in June 2009, he claimed the first ever point-paying victory for SHR, when he started on the pole and led 39 laps en route to winning the Pocono 500.
That victory, coupled with his win three weeks prior at the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, helped set the stage for an impressive summer stretch which saw Stewart capture three more victories at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, the road course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International and Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.
Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb would love nothing more than to score a victory at Pocono and jump-start the summer stretch as the battle for the 12 spots in the Chase for Championship heats up.
Perhaps history could repeat itself, too. Following his 1971 victory at Pocono (which came about two months after Stewart was born), Donohue went on to win the next USAC Champ Car race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. Ironic, considering the next event on the Sprint Cup schedule following Pocono takes place at, of all places, Michigan.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
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.”
Your victory two years ago at Pocono was the first point-paying victory for Stewart-Haas Racing. What do you remember about that victory?
“I knew it was big when we were there in victory lane, obviously. Getting the first one at Charlotte (the non-points Sprint All-Star Race) was a huge accomplishment for the organization, but that first official points win was big, too. The feeling was the same as it was in Charlotte, but it was different because you knew it was a points race. It just meant a lot. It meant so much to a lot of people because it had been a long road to get this organization to where it could win races. Everybody put a lot of hard work into getting this program where it’s at, so it was nice to get to victory lane for a points race.”
Your win at Pocono two 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 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.”
Last week at Kansas you had to pit with 10 laps to go and gave up what potentially would have been a victory. Looking back, would you do anything different?
“We didn’t get all the fuel in it to make it to the end. We had a problem getting the fuel in and we didn’t get it full at that second to last stop so we had to pit there with about 10 laps to go. There’s nothing you can do. Our guys are doing a great job. They did a great job all day. We kind of had to roll the dice on the chassis setup. I’m really proud of our engineers and Darian (Grubb, crew chief). They did a great job of getting us there and making good, educated guesses.”