KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Success breeds nepotism. It’s one of the reasons favorite racetracks garner all of the attention.
For example, Tony Stewart scored his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway during his rookie season in 1999. It’s a victory that preceded two additional Richmond wins, both during the track’s fall races in 2001 and 2002. As such, it’s been well documented that, as far as beloved racetracks go, Richmond tops the list for Stewart.
Favorite racetracks always make for a good story – much more so than perhaps a racetrack to which a driver is just plain well-suited. Without much rhyme or reason, some drivers and tracks work well, going together like peas and carrots, fric and frac or yin and yang. It just works.
While those tracks may not make for good copy, they are excellent for the resume. For Stewart, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway is just such a track.
Driving the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) this weekend, Stewart makes his 33rd career start at Pocono in Sunday’s Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400.
While the 2.5-mile triangle is one of the more quirky tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule, it’s seemingly tailor-made for the venerable Stewart, who embraced it early in his Sprint Cup career, finishing sixth in his Pocono debut during his rookie campaign. With two wins, four poles, eight top-threes, 12 top-fives, 22 top-10s and a total of 183 laps led in 32 career Sprint Cup starts at Pocono, the aptly named “Tricky Triangle” has proven to be very good for Stewart throughout his 17-year Sprint Cup career.
Mirroring Stewart’s consistent Pocono results has been his reliability on the track, as he has completed 5,802 of the 5,987 laps available to him for a lap completion rate of 96.9 percent. Only twice has Stewart failed to finish a race at Pocono. And as a driver who has traditionally found his groove by the time the calendar turns to June, Stewart’s penchant for consistently running strong at Pocono could also be perfectly timed.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion currently finds himself 28th in the championship point standings with a sixth-place finish at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway being his best result. A hard-fought 16th-place finish at Dover (Del.) International Speedway last week, however, is suggestive of a potential turning point that coincides with the start of the Sprint Cup schedule’s “Summer Swing” – a time that has historically been “Stewart Time.”
A favorite or not, Pocono has worked well for Stewart throughout his ballyhooed career. The track’s three-turn layout – each turn as varied as they come – tends to confound most drivers and teams, but tends to play right into the hands of Stewart. In other words, Pocono has always been the yin to his yang.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
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.”
Winning by maximizing fuel mileage has been a theme at Pocono. Your win at Pocono five six 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.”
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.”
What kind of marks do drivers use to get around a track like Pocono?
“I think every driver is different. At every racetrack you go to, there’s something distinct in the racetrack that you would use as a reference, but every driver kind of has his own different deal they look for. It can be something really small. It can be just a variation in the shade of the asphalt that gets used as a reference, sometimes.”