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.