Tony Stewart rallied from a 28th-place starting spot and a flat left-front tire that at one point had him a lap down in Sunday’s Good Sam RV Insurance 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway to finish 11th and maintain his ninth-place standing in the championship point race.
The pilot of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) scored his 14th top-15 finish of 2011 thanks to a gritty drive that saw him twice rise up the leaderboard from 28th in the 43-car field.
After starting 28th, Stewart climbed to 16th even as his car pushed through the 2.5-mile triangle’s three distinct corners. But when his Office Depot/Mobil 1 machine suffered a flat left-front tire on lap 92, Stewart dropped back to 28th, and even worse, off the lead lap.
But a caution period on lap 100 allowed Stewart to take advantage of the “wave around” rule, where any car that doesn’t pit under caution can get a lap back if every car on the lead lap does pit.
Back on the lead lap, Stewart renewed his charge to the front. He was 19th when he made a scheduled, green-flag pit stop for four tires and fuel on lap 120. Unfortunately, rain began falling a few laps later and the caution came out, which again put Stewart a lap down.
After a nearly two-hour rain delay, drivers were called back to their cars and the opening laps were run under caution. As the first driver one lap down, Stewart earned the “lucky dog,” whereupon he was back on the lead lap, albeit mired in 28th place.
Another round of pit stops were made by all before the race went green on lap 132. With four fresh tires and a full tank of fuel, Stewart again made his way through the field. He cracked the top-20 on lap 142 with a pass of A.J. Allmendinger, and rose to 19th by lap 153, site of another green-flag pit stop.
Stewart’s car was still tight, and if the race stayed green to its conclusion, only one more pit stop would be needed. That stop came on lap 175 for another full set of Goodyears and fuel.
Good to go until the end, Stewart still needed another caution to bunch up the field, keeping those ahead of him in his sights. He got that caution on lap 180.
There, a decision had to be made, and it was in the hands of crew chief Darian Grubb. Take two tires and gain precious track position? Or take four tires and know that you had enough rubber to earn the track position you deserved with 15 laps to go? Grubb opted for the latter and it proved a smart choice.
When the race returned to green for the final time, those who took two tires dropped like rocks. Those who took four tires had the grip they needed to better navigate Pocono’s quirky confines.
“The guys that didn’t take tires, fell back a little bit. Then guys that had four (tires) were faster than guys on two. It was kind of a mix, I think,” Stewart said. “It was all a matter of what your balance was. If you car was good, I think taking no tires and track position was the way to go but, we weren’t quite there. We needed to take four every time.”
In 22nd position after that final, four-tire pit stop, Stewart began picking off cars as he set his sights on the top-10. By lap 185, he broke into the top-15, and with five laps to go, Stewart was 13th. He picked off Jeff Burton for 12th on lap 196 and nipped Martin Truex, Jr., for 11th on lap 198.
Brickyard 400 winner Paul Menard was in 10th place, and Stewart was running him down hard as he sought his ninth top-10 of the season and 19th top-10 at Pocono in 26 career Sprint Cup starts. Time ran out, however, and Stewart was forced to settle for 11th.
“We didn’t quite get there, we missed it by one,” said Stewart, who has two wins at Pocono (June 2003 and June 2009). “Proud of our guys. We had the bad luck of the tire there and came from the back. All the spots we got, we earned them today. Proud of Darian (Grubb) and all these guys. They never gave up today and we don’t give up until it’s over.”
Stewart-Haas Racing PR