The rain Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway proved to be Tony Stewart’s gain when the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 “Back-to-School” Chevrolet finished fifth in the rain-shortened Pennsylvania 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Stewart rallied from his 28th-place starting spot in the 43-car field to collect his 11th top-five and 20th top-10 in 27 career Sprint Cup starts at the 2.5-mile triangle.
“I’m real proud of Steve Addington (crew chief) and all these guys at Stewart-Haas Racing,” said Stewart, who jumped from eighth to fifth on the race’s final restart to score his ninth top-five result and 11th top-10 of 2012. “We didn’t necessarily throw a Hail Mary at it, but we kind of went back to where we started Friday and worked from that. We only spent about a quarter of the two practices on that setup that we ended up racing. I’m really proud of him for taking all afternoon and evening last night and finding the package that we ran today. It was a much better racecar.”
From the time the No. 14 car, with its special white-and-red paint scheme promoting Office Depot’s “Back-to-School” initiative, was unloaded, Addington and Co. worked to create grip in the car’s handling. The loose condition that Stewart battled during practice sessions Friday afternoon carried over to qualifying Saturday morning.
But between the end of qualifying and the start of the race that was delayed by nearly two hours for rain, Addington went to work and devised a chassis setup and pit strategy that provided dividends for Stewart.
The heavy rain that passed over Pocono washed the racetrack clean, making the asphalt slicker than it was Friday and Saturday. Nonetheless, Stewart climbed to 22nd by the time the first caution flag waved on lap 19, even with an Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy that was a little tight in the center of the track’s corners.
Minor chassis and tire-pressure adjustments were made on the ensuing pit stop, as Stewart reported that his car’s overall balance was good. With four fresh tires and a full tank of fuel, Stewart was back on the track in 25th place when the race resumed on lap 22.
Stewart’s ascension on the leaderboard continued, as he cracked the top-15 by lap 35 and the top-10 by lap 39. Three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Stewart provided progress reports throughout the long, stretch of green-flag racing, noting on lap 40 that his car was handling really well out of turn three despite the persistent tightness he experienced in the center of the corners.
With weather closing in on the “Tricky Triangle,” the team made its final pit stop on lap 76. In an attempt to free up the handling in the turns, Addington called for wedge and tire pressure adjustments, four tires and fuel. Stewart was in 12th place for the restart and quickly made his way back into the top-10.
Stewart was in eighth place on lap 92 when race leader Jimmie Johnson got loose entering turn one and got into second-place Matt Kenseth. Johnson slid high toward the outside retaining wall while Kenseth slid into traffic, collecting a handful of cars. Stewart dove to the bottom of the corner and climbed to fifth place.
While the clean-up process was taking place, rain started moving over the track from the turn-three side of the facility. NASCAR was unable to get the field in position for a restart before the clouds opened up and pelted the track with rain. The cars were brought down pit road, and the race was called 15 minutes later.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), finished right behind Stewart in sixth place to earn his seventh top-10 finish of 2012 and his 10th top-10 in 22 career Sprint Cup starts at Pocono.
It was the second straight time the SHR duo finished together in the top-10, and the sixth time they’ve finished in the top-10 together this season. Prior to Pocono, the tandem finished among the top-10 March 11 at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway, March 25 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., April 1 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, July 7 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and July 29 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Jeff Gordon won the Pennsylvania 400 to score his 86th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his sixth at Pocono.
Kasey Kahne finished behind Gordon in the runner-up spot. Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Stewart rounded out the top-five, while Newman, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Regan Smith and Marcos Ambrose comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were three caution periods for 14 laps, with 14 drivers failing to finish the 98-lap race, which was shortened from its scheduled 160-lap distance due to the heavy rains.
With round 21 of 36 complete, Stewart continues to lead the SHR duo in the championship point standings. He improved two spots to sixth and has 691 points, 53 back of series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., and one point ahead of seventh-place Keselowski with a 69-point cushion over 11th-place Kahne. Newman remained 14th and has 611 points, 133 behind Earnhardt and 68 behind 10th-place Bowyer.
Only the top-10 in points are locked into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Just five races remain before the cutoff for the 12-driver, 10-race Chase. Chase positions 11-12 are wild cards and are awarded to those drivers between 11th and 20th in points who have the most wins. In the event of multiple drivers having the same amount of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Kahne holds the 11th-place wild-card spot thanks to his two victories, the most of any driver outside the top-10. Gordon vaulted into the 12th-place wild-card spot with his win in the Pennsylvania 400. While Gordon has only one victory, just like fellow wild-card contenders Newman, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, his 13th-place point standing earns him the 12th and final wild card through the tiebreaker.
Newman can earn a wild-card spot by grabbing another victory in the next five races or by climbing into the top-10 in points.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen on Sunday, Aug. 12 at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course. The race starts at 1 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with its pre-race show at noon.