The last time Tony Stewart made it difficult on himself at Pocono Raceway, he left the track with a victory. That didn't happen the second time, however.

Starting from the rear after going to a back-up car - necessitated by a crash in practice on Saturday - Stewart struggled with the handling of his #14 Chevrolet early in Monday's rain-delayed Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500. Although he worked his way toward the front, he eventually had to settle for a tenth-place finish, not another unlikely victory, as he had accomplished under almost identical circumstances in Pocono's June race.

"We were just really, really loose at the beginning," Stewart reported, "Not where it was going to be a little adjustment to get us caught up - it was going to take big steps. We finally just made a huge, huge change and we got it closer, but we never got it right.

"Once we got it tightened up, we were too tight and then couldn't get it freed up enough, but it was at least drivable. We made the best of a bad situation that I put us in on Saturday morning."

While it wasn't a win, the tenth-place finish at Pocono marked an impressive achievement on a number of fronts for Stewart. It was the team's series-leading 17th top-ten finish of 2009 and the ninth straight. The finish extended Stewart's lead in the championship standings to 197 points over second-placed Jimmie Johnson.

While Stewart walked away unhurt from the turn three accident in the first practice session after he had been handed pole position by another Pocono rain-out, the damage to the car was substantial. The team quickly pulled out the back-up and prepped it in time to continue practice but, once a back-up is used after qualifying, NASCAR rules state that you're forced to start at the rear of the field.

The scenario was eerily similar to what played out in June, when the Sprint Cup first visited Pocono in 2009. There too, qualifying was rained-out and Stewart was awarded the pole but, come Saturday, a spin coming off turn two damaged the car's nose, forcing the team to use its back-up for the race. That time, however, Stewart picked off a car a lap after starting 43rd and went on to lead the final 37 laps to take his first win as an owner/driver.

While the weekend's story appeared to be following the same script, it became apparent that a different ending was being penned just ten laps in. Stewart made forward progress, picking up eleven positions in the first three laps, but the tell-tale signs of a long day quickly emerged as Stewart radioed crew chief Darian Grubb to say "I'm free... everywhere,"

Then, on lap ten, Stewart felt that he had a right-rear tyre going down. Grubb immediately called him to the pits for a four-tyre change. No flat was found, however, and Stewart was mired back in 41st position.

As the race went on, Grubb made a series of adjustments to aid the handling of the #14 - air pressure, wedge, track bar, nothing was off-limits and, when progress was made, it came slowly. Finally, at the halfway point of the 200-lap race, Stewart and co caught a break.

Running in 28th, Grubb kept Stewart out on track as long as possible when a series of green flag pit-stops began on lap 92. Stewart climbed to second as those ahead of him pitted for fuel and tyres but, once those cars came back onto the track, they quickly ran him down, as their new rubber was more than a match for the #14's worn tyres.

After dropping to seventh, Stewart finally pitted and then quickly earned a reprieve. Just as the team finished its stop, the yellow caution flag waved. With four fresh tyres and a full tank of fuel, Stewart returned to the track while those who had pitted ahead of him had to come back to pit road to get new tyres and top off with fuel. Suddenly, he was in the top ten, and restarted the race in seventh when the green flag dropped on lap 101. He bounced in and out of the top ten as his car continued to prove fitful, but it was still better than running in the mid-30s near the back of the field.

It was a much-needed boost and, when a series of restarts from lap 141 to lap 160 dropped Stewart to 20th, it was okay, as they allowed Grubb to tinker ever more with the car's handling.

A smart fuel-only call by Grubb on lap 166 vaulted Stewart back into the top-ten, as the Old Spice/Swagger ride was able to restart sixth when the race went green on lap 170. While Stewart dropped back as his car still wasn't perfect, he never dropped out of the top ten. The constant adjustments Grubb made allowed the #14 to steal a top ten, as Stewart held off a charging Matt Kenseth to claim tenth when the chequered flag dropped.

"We never give up," Stewart said, "Darian never gets wound up and it keeps me from getting wound up. He just helps you through it. It's easy to get down, but he is just calm and keeps you pumped up. You realise you've got a long day, but that you'll get it better as the day goes."

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service


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