He needs a win, and Pocono may have a recipe for success
Brussels sprouts rarely make an appearance on anyone’s list of favorite foods. And why would they? They’re a leafy, green vegetable that, depending on how they’re prepared, can have a questionable texture and bitter taste. Yet, they’re packed with nutrients, including anticancer properties, earning them “it’s good for you” status from generations of moms.
Like Brussel sprouts, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway rarely ranks at the top of a driver’s list of favorite tracks. However, it is a venue that has an “it’s good for you” effect for a handful of drivers who have mastered the track’s distinctive design.
The quirky, 2.5-mile triangle is one that Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, quickly embraced, for in his first Sprint Cup start at Pocono in June 1999, he finished sixth. And with two wins, two poles, eight top-threes, 12 top-fives, 22 top-10s and a total of 159 laps led in 30 career Sprint Cup starts at Pocono, the aptly named “Tricky Triangle” has proven to be very good for Stewart throughout his 16-year Sprint Cup career.
Just as Brussels sprouts have unique health benefits, Pocono’s unique layout can have benefits for Stewart. The three-time Sprint Cup champion (2002, 2005 and 2011) is currently 21st in the standings, a distant 127 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth. But a more manageable 21-point margin separates Stewart from 16th-place Greg Biffle, who currently holds the final transfer spot for the 16-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
With 13 races down and 13 more to go before the 16-driver field for the 2014 Chase is determined, breaking into the top-16 is easily attainable. Stewart’s march toward this year’s Chase began last Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway where he finished seventh to log his fifth top-10 of the season. Some more workmanlike performances in the coming weeks will not only put Stewart in the top-16, but will elevate him into the top-10, providing added cushion to make the Chase.
Don’t believe it? During this time last year, Stewart rattled off a string of top-10s between the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway and the June race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn that vaulted him from 21st in points to 10th. Stewart was on his way to making the Chase for the ninth time since its inception in 2004 before an accident in a sprint car on Aug. 5 broke his right leg and put him out of commission for the final 15 races of the season.
Stewart has come back from that injury and set his sights on scoring career win No. 49 and securing a spot in the Chase, where a win automatically qualifies a driver. Despite an inconsistent season thus far, Stewart’s penchant for consistently running strong at Pocono could provide a turning point at a track with only three turns.
And it’s that three-turn layout that tends to confound drivers and their teams, leaving most with a sour taste in their mouths. The track’s three turns are as varied as they come, as each was modeled after a different track.
Pocono was designed by two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rodger Ward, who took a corner from three historic ovals and molded them into the “Tricky Triangle”. 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, Wisconsin.
Getting a car to properly handle any one of those corners at speeds nearing 170 mph is difficult. Getting a car to handle all three of those different corners is nearly impossible.
But Stewart, the first driver/owner to win a Sprint Cup championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992, tends to find the possible amid the impossible. Perhaps that is why his average finish at Pocono in 30 career starts is 11th, and why in the last 18 races at Pocono Stewart leads all of his peers in the category of best average finishing position (9.1).
Those consistent results have been mirrored by Stewart’s reliability on the track, as he has completed 5,518 of the 5,667 laps available to him for a lap completion rate of 97.4 percent. Only twice has Stewart failed to finish a race at Pocono. And since the inception of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, Stewart has finished outside the top-11 only once.
All of those statistics are aided by the weather, for when it gets hot, so does Stewart. Of his 48 career Sprint Cup wins, 23 have come in June, July and August. It’s the perfect growing season for Brussels sprouts, and the perfect time for Stewart to grow his resume.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How close do you feel you are to getting a win?
“We’ve been able to win at least one race a season my entire Sprint Cup career. I don’t think there’s ever a point where, especially with this format, that you get panicked, because you don’t have to be stellar in the points, you just have to get a win. Our track record shows that we can get it. It’s just a matter of when is it going to happen? Especially with the new rules package this year, I don’t think anybody is in panic mode. We’re still learning these cars and going to tracks for the first time in the season. Six or eight weeks before Richmond, then you start panicking if you don’t have that win. I think it’s still too early to panic, at least for us.”
What is a lap around Pocono like?
“Going into turn one, you drive it in kind of deep and then try to float the car through the corner. It’s very flat when you go down the backstretch and into the tunnel turn. Then the short chute into turn three – it’s a big, long corner and it’s important to get through that turn well because you have a straightaway that’s three-quarters of a mile long after that. You need to come off the corner quickly so that you aren’t 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.”
How much has Pocono changed since the repaving project a couple of years ago?
“It’s gotten better each time we’ve been back and I think we’ll see more of the same this weekend. It’s lost just enough grip to where it’s making it easier to lay rubber in the racetrack now. The track is in good shape. You always fight water pumping up through the track there, so other than that it was actually pretty perfect.”
Winning by maximizing fuel mileage has been a theme at Pocono. Your win at Pocono five 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.”