Stewart gets win at Pocono,
credits calls, his 20 crew
By DAVID SCOTT
The Charlotte Observer
LONG POND, Pa. - Circumstances finally favored Tony Stewart at Pocono Raceway on Sunday. Then some air-tight strategy by his crew chief allowed Stewart to win NASCAR's Pocono 500 with a caution flag flying at the finish.
It was Stewart's first victory of the season - and his first since Watkins Glen in August 2002, when he went on to win the Winston Cup championship. Mark Martin was second, Ford and Roush Racing teammate and points leader Matt Kenseth third. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fourth in a Chevrolet.
The victory ended Stewart's string of misfortune, which began at Bristol in March and continued through last week at Dover, by which time he had fallen from second in points to 20th.
But as the field rolled at a ponderous 55 mph around Pocono's 2.5-mile, triangle-shaped track and across the finish line Sunday, Stewart had jumped to 13th in the points standings.
"I've been the one sitting inside the trailer saying we need to try to find the positive in every negative, saying let's keep our temperaments evened off," said Stewart. "I've been saying let's not dwell on the past."
Stewart's No. 20 Chevrolet snapped the streak after crew chief Greg Zipadelli had him stop for fuel on Lap 176 - 24 laps from the end - while leading the race. Zipadelli correctly figured the cars that moved in front of Stewart during the 3.66-second stop - most notably Jeff Burton, Todd Bodine and Jeremy Mayfield - would also need gas.
They did, and Stewart had his lead back with 10 laps left.
"I didn't know what Zippy had in mind," said Stewart. "That's not my job. I just turn laps as hard as I can. I was hoping in that time frame that we'd built up enough of a lead. If we did, we'd beat them. My crew won this race."
The race ended under caution when Terry Labonte bumped Jeff Green into the wall on Lap 197.
Like in Dover, Stewart's Chevrolet was the fastest in the field. Unlike Dover - where he was penalized a lap after a pit-road violation - and races at Charlotte, Richmond and California, nothing happened to jeopardize his chances.
"I think we've given up more than we've had lately," said Zipadelli. "We've made some mistakes and had a lapse of focus a few times. Everything has to be 100 percent every lap in order to win. It's that competitive. We had to give up lap position because of fuel mileage, and we did. It worked."
Lurking behind was Martin, who stayed close to Stewart before the final caution.
"We were going to try and make something happen," said Martin. "If anything went wrong for him, we were going to be all over it. No tricks, but if he slipped or missed a gear, we maybe could have gotten close to him. It would have been on, but I can't say I was fixing to get him."
Kenseth, who recovered from a pit stop on Lap 50 in which he ran out of gas, increased his lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt - who finished fourth Sunday - by five points.
Kenseth's 176-point lead is the largest lead of the season and the largest after 14 races in a season since eventual champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. led Dale Jarrett by 213 points in 1993.
"We've been keeping (Kenseth) in sight," said Earnhardt Jr., "and that's all we can do all year long to stay in the point battle."
Turn 1 claimed two early victims Sunday, both in fiery wrecks. On Lap 3, Ken Schrader's Dodge lost its brakes going into the corner, hit and nearly climbed the wall, before catching fire. Schrader climbed out unhurt.
"NASCAR has done so much with the safety stuff that it felt like a puppy hit," said Schrader.
Then Jarrett lost it in the first turn of Lap 53, spinning before hitting the wall hard. His car also burst into flames. Jarrett barely got out in time, with one of his gloves on fire.
"It got really hot and I was trying to get my gloves off," said Jarrett. "It's always hard to get out, especially when you're trying to get out in a hurry."