LONG POND, Pa. - Last-place starters are not supposed to win major races. Occasionally, however, there are exceptions. Yesterday's Pocono 500 was one of them.
Tony Stewart managed a last-to-first journey at Pocono Raceway in taking the NASCAR Sprint Cup series event. He even supplied extra drama by crossing the start/finish line in his Chevrolet almost on fumes.
As the points leader, Stewart was scheduled to start on the pole yesterday after Friday's qualifying was rained out. However, during Saturday's morning practice, he damaged his red No. 14 race car when he spun exiting Turn 2. He had to start his backup car at the rear of the 43-car field.
Halfway through the 200-lap race the forward-focused Stewart was running eighth. Just 10 laps later, he was third. On the race's final pit stops, with 36 laps remaining, he edged Carl Edwards exiting pit road. Edwards paced the most laps (103) in the race.
With just 10 laps to go, Stewart's lead over Edwards was a comfortable 6.0 seconds. As the laps dwindled down, though, the gap between Stewart and Edwards narrowed.
Beginning the final lap, Stewart was 2.5 seconds ahead of Edwards. Final margin of victory: 2.004 seconds.
Said Edwards: "I was sure he'd run out [of fuel]. He did a really good job."
"At the end, we had an awesome pit stop," Stewart said. "Coming in second and coming out with the lead was the turning point."
Describing the fuel-mileage duel with Edwards as "a chess match," Stewart said: "I didn't know how close we really were [with fuel]. All you can do is listen to the intervals every lap and try to give yourself enough of a cushion."
Referring to crew chief Darian Grubb, Stewart said: "He knows the pace we need to run. He just kept backing me down when I would get going too hard."
For an aggressive racer like Stewart to let off the throttle is comparable to Kobe Bryant stressing defense in an NBA playoff game.
"It's miserable," a smiling Stewart said. "It's 180 degrees [opposite] of what you're trained to do."
Stewart's breakthrough win as a driver-owner is the first in the Cup series since Ricky Rudd won at Martinsville Speedway in September 1998. The victory was Stewart's second at Pocono in 21 starts (the previous W was in 2003).
Stewart had three runner-up finishes this year, including last Sunday at Dover, Del., when he was passed by Jimmie Johnson with three laps remaining.
With 34 career Cup series victories and two championships, Stewart clearly is one of racing's best. That he is winning races and leading the points standings, by 71 over Jeff Gordon, as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing after just 14 races is remarkable.
"It's easy when you have the tools," Stewart said. "It's a matter of finding the key people."
Count Edwards among the skeptics who wondered if Stewart would be successful as a driver-owner.
"The things that he set out to accomplish this year were huge," Edwards said. "I personally didn't believe he could get it done. I did not think he would succeed the way he has so far. I'm extremely impressed. I can only imagine how good that feels [for him]."
David Reutimann finished third and Jeff Gordon was fourth. *
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