STEWART TAKES CARE OF BUSINESS AT POCONO Office Depot/Old Spice Driver Earns First Sprint Cup Win as a Driver/Owner Even before the green flag dropped on Sunday's Pocono 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, Tony Stewart made the pundits go from...
STEWART TAKES CARE OF BUSINESS AT POCONO
Office Depot/Old Spice Driver Earns First Sprint Cup Win as a Driver/Owner
Even before the green flag dropped on Sunday's Pocono 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, Tony Stewart made the pundits go from asking, "Will Tony Stewart ever win again?" to "When will Tony Stewart win?"
But after the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS won the Pocono 500, the next question might very well be, "Will Tony Stewart ever stop winning?"
Stewart left the comfy confines of Joe Gibbs Racing after a 10-year run that produced 33 career Sprint Cup wins and two championships to become a driver/owner in 2009 with Stewart-Haas Racing, the team he co-owns with Oxnard, Calif.-based Haas Automation -- the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world.
Prior to the start of the season, many predicted that Stewart would struggle before he tasted success -- if he found any success at all -- for the dual role of driver/owner hadn't bore fruit of any substance since Ricky Rudd won a Sprint Cup race on Sept. 27, 1998 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
But with a handful of top-10 finishes early in the 2009 season followed by a handful of top-five finishes that included three second-place results, it became apparent that conventional thinking did not apply to the unconventional Stewart.
Three-hundred-and-seventy-five races had passed since Rudd's victory, the last for a driver/owner. That is until Stewart pulled his red and black and No. 14 Chevy into Pocono's victory lane, winning a race on guile and strategy as much as guts and horsepower.
"I have to thank Office Depot, Old Spice, the U.S. Army, Coca-Cola and Chevrolet, who was the first one to say they wanted to be a part of this," Stewart said. "This has been an awesome weekend."
The multi-tasking Sprint Cup veteran ended the winless streak for driver/owners in impressive fashion.
When qualifying was washed out on Friday, Stewart was awarded the pole via his first-place standing in the championship points race, a spot he earned a week ago by virtue of his second-place finish in the Sprint Cup race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. By taking the point lead, Stewart became the first driver/owner to stand atop the points since Nov. 15, 1992 when Alan Kulwicki clinched the title by 10 points over Bill Elliott at Atlanta Motor Speedway, ending a 556-race span.
But that first-place starting spot went away after Saturday morning's first practice session. There, Stewart spun his Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy on the 2.5-mile triangle's tunnel turn, and when the nose of his Chevy slid through the infield grass, it was gouged so badly by divots that Stewart was forced to a backup racecar.
That meant that instead of starting first in the 43-car field, Stewart would start last.
It seemed of little matter to Stewart, who cracked the top-10 before even 50 laps were completed in the 200-lap marathon. And with less than 50 laps remaining, Stewart was second only to Carl Edwards.
That's where things got really interesting.
When the yellow caution flag waved for what would be the final time on lap 159 to pick up debris in turn three, it set the stage for a fuel mileage race, where after coming to pit road for tires and fuel, drivers and crew chiefs crunched the numbers to see if their racecars could make it the rest of the way with the fuel they had in their respective tanks.
Some teams were cutting it incredibly close, others knew they had no chance.
Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb were not among the latter.
The duo calculated that with smart driving and sharp fuel economy they could go the distance. Making their decision somewhat easier was their pit crew's quick work, as the No. 14 team serviced Stewart's car faster than the crew of Edwards, as Stewart beat Edwards off pit road to take the lead.
When the green flag dropped on lap 166, Stewart was out front, with Edwards and three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Johnson in pursuit. But it turned out to be not much of a pursuit, for everyone was watching their respective fuel gauges. As a result, the pace backed way down, with each driver hoping the other drivers would run out of fuel.
But as Stewart came off turn three down the long frontstretch to take the checkered flag, everyone knew that Stewart wouldn't be denied. He took the win by 2.004 seconds over Edwards to secure his 34th career Sprint Cup victory, his first point-paying win of the season and his second at Pocono.
"We had an awesome day," said Stewart, who won his first Sprint Cup race at Pocono in June 2003. "Darian (Grubb) said we weren't going to try to be fancy and not going to do anything tricky trying to get track position. Just going to stick to our gameplan and we did that. We never tried to take two tires to get track position or anything. We were able to get through the first half of the pack pretty quick, and once we got there, we finally started getting in better air and just had a really good car all day.
"We had a car where we were consistently in the top-three speed-wise all day, and we were able to run guys down. We were able to stay out a couple of laps longer than everybody all day. But the tradeoff to that was they would get fresh tires and two or three seconds on us, and you had to whittle that back down after we would make our stop. It was fun, though, knowing that you had a car that you could do that with.
"There at the end there, we had an awesome pit stop. And the guys have been doing such a great job all year, coming in second and coming out with a lead like that. That was really the turning point there for us at the end. And once we got that lead and we were able to hold Carl off, they went into the fuel mode and tried to conserve, and as soon as we got a little bit of a lead, we were able to do the same thing.
"It's just at that point listening to Darian and he knows what pace we need to run. And he just kept backing me down when I would get going too hard or too quick. He would tell me he needed more and we would slow down a little more. You hate to be in that situation, but that's a theme here when we come to Pocono. With it being such a long track like this, fuel mileage is going to be important. It was just a matter of running hard enough to stay in the lead, but slow enough to save fuel in case we had a green-white-checkered at the end."
The win was the first point-paying victory for SHR. Stewart won the non-point NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race May 16 at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., but it didn't award any points toward the season-ending championship. The Pocono 500 did, and along with the high-fives and backslaps enjoyed in victory lane, Stewart now has a 71-point lead to enjoy over second-place Jeff Gordon heading into the series' next race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation Demo Day/U.S. Army Chevrolet Impala SS for SHR, finished fifth in the Pocono 500 to secure his sixth consecutive top-10 finish. The result allowed Newman to gain one spot in the championship standings, bringing him to fourth, 203 points behind teammate Stewart.
Finishing third behind Stewart and Newman was David Reutimann, while Gordon and Newman rounded out the top-five. Marcos Ambrose, Jimmie Johnson, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton and Sam Hornish Jr., comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were five caution periods for 20 laps, with five drivers failing to finish the 500-mile race.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the June 14 LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The race begins at 2 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by TNT beginning with its pre-race show at 12:30 p.m.