LONG POND, Pa. - Racing from worst to first, Tony Stewart charged through the field at Pocono Raceway yesterday like a man in a hurry. But just when he got close enough to see the finish line, Stewart had to take his time getting there.
"I hate racing like this," Stewart bellowed over his in-car radio while easing off the throttle over the final laps of the Pocono 500.
But by feathering the gas pedal of his No. 14 Chevrolet and getting timely coaching from crew chief Darian Grubb, Stewart conserved enough fuel down the stretch to claim his 34th career victory. He also registered his initial NASCAR Sprint Cup win as a co-owner of the first-year Stewart-Haas Racing team.
After an extended Victory Lane celebration, Stewart admitted that he didn't know how much gas he had left in the tank and called shifting into conservation mode a "miserable" way to race.
"It's 180 degrees from what you're trained to do, what you strive to do," he said.
After crashing during practice Saturday, Stewart was forced to roll out his reserve Impala SS, forfeit the pole position, and start the race from the rear of the 43-car field. Stewart methodically gained real estate on the 2.5-mile tri-oval, took over the lead on Lap 77, and remained in the hunt the rest of the afternoon.
Stewart not only took the checkered flag, he also left Pocono with the Sprint Cup Series lead.
"This is really special because of the group of guys that I'm working with. I always had a good group of people to work with," Stewart said of his decade-long run driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. "It's just a little different when it's your own people."
Despite 22 lead changes among a dozen drivers and the much-anticipated debut of the new double-file restart rule - which worked in keeping the stronger cars at the front of the pack - the largely ho-hum, 200-lap event had the estimated crowd of 105,000 bleary-eyed until the fuel-mileage wild card came into play with about 40 miles remaining.
The drama began to unfold with 16 laps to go, as Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne alternately surrendered top-five positions for a splash of fuel.
The angst grew on pit road and on the track, with the leaders slowing to save gas down to the final lap. Jimmie Johnson briefly seized second place from Carl Edwards, but ran out of fuel and coasted across the finish line in seventh place.
It was a particularly bitter runner-up finish for Edwards, who led for a race-high 103 laps but crossed the line 2.004 seconds behind Stewart.
"I'll be happy later," Edwards said. "We're stronger now than we've been all year, but to be that close to victory is frustrating."
On the flip side, David Reutimann (third), Marcos Ambrose (sixth), Juan Pablo Montoya (eighth) and Sam Hornish Jr. (10th) had reasons to celebrate, coming away with top-10 finishes after flying under the radar for most of the day.
Jeff Gordon, who remained second in the standings but slipped 71 points behind Stewart, was excited to salvage a fourth-place finish. Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman, overcame a nearly daylong battle with a faulty spark plug to take fifth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., in his second race working with crew chief Lance McGrew, was a nonfactor all day. He finished 27th.