Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, June 8, 2009

Stewart stretches fuel, wins at Pocono

Tony Stewart stretched his fuel over the final 41 laps to win the Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, picking up his first points-paying win as an owner/driver with Stewart Haas Racing, the culmination of an unexpectedly impressive journey in the champion's career.

Not only did Stewart extend his series lead over Jeff Gordon to 71 points and earn himself 10 bonus points for the Chase, but he also became the first owner/driver to win a Sprint Cup Series points race since Ricky Rudd won at Martinsville in 1998. While Stewart's accomplishment isn't quite as impressive as Rudd's, it's a remarkable achievement nonetheless ... especially if one considers Stewart started shotgun on Sunday.

Rain on Friday handed him the pole, but Stewart spun in Saturday practice, tearing the front splitter off the car and forcing the No. 14 crew to break out the backup car. Though Stewart ultimately won because of fuel mileage -- coasting halfway down the straightaways and keeping his foot off the throttle through the turns -- Stewart was one of the fastest cars all day, and was easily top-5 caliber.

Still, to start 43rd at Pocono and march to the front like he did? Stewart earned this win, fuel mileage or no.

Perhaps more impressive than Stewart's win and points lead, teammate Ryan Newman has ended his early-season struggles. He finished fifth on Sunday to rack up yet another top-5 finish and vault himself to fourth in the standings. Stewart Haas Racing is much further along at this point than anyone expected, and both drivers are a threat for the championship.

For the balance of the day, it looked like this race was Carl Edwards' to lose. He led a race-high 103 laps, and even overcame an early pit miscue where his crew didn't get the fuel tank completely full. He played the fuel game at the end as well as Stewart, but Edwards couldn't mount a charge after Stewart beat him off pit road under the last caution.

Still, that makes three straight finishes of seventh or better for Edwards. The preseason title favorite is still winless in 2009 (after piling up nine wins last season), but the No. 99 team is starting to hit its stride, and Edwards might just rattle off a few wins before we head back to Richmond for the last race before the Chase.

Jimmie Johnson also looked strong, leading early and easily having a top-5 car. But he caught a bad break when a caution flew just as he was committing to pit road. With pit road closed before Johnson hit the commitment line, the No. 48 was penalized and sent to the back of the pack. Even with that, Johnson was running third on the final lap before he ran out of fuel, coasting over half the 2.5-mile triangle to come in seventh.

One driver who was expected to be a factor, Denny Hamlin, really wasn't. A two-time winner at Pocono, Hamlin paced Saturday's final practice session. But when the green flag flew on Sunday, Hamlin's car shut off. It did the same roughly 10 laps later after the team tried to fix the problem, and Hamlin wound up finishing 38th.

More bad luck for the increasingly pessimistic Hamlin.

Pocono also marked the first time this season the series used the double-file restart. The move was perfect for Pocono, because of how large and wide the track is, and it'll also work well this coming weekend at Michigan International Speedway. But the fact is, the new rule improved the racing, and though the change wasn't monumental, it did improve competition.

Every little bit helps.

Still, with his first win of the season (second, if you count the All-Star Race), Stewart has officially solidified himself as a title contender. That's nothing short of amazing, considering where the Stewart Haas team was a year ago, and we're heading into the summer months, where Stewart is money; 30 of his 34 career wins have come in June or later. Before this season, Stewart had only led the point standings twice: in 2002 and 2005. He won the championship both seasons, the only driver to win titles under the old format and the current Chase formula.

If I'm the rest of the field, I'm worried. Actually, make that downright scared.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pocono 500
1. Tony Stewart*
2. Carl Edwards**
3. David Reutimann
4. Jeff Gordon*
5. Ryan Newman*
6. Marcos Ambrose
7. Jimme Johnson*
8. Juan Pablo Montoya
9. Jeff Burton
10. Sam Hornish Jr.
11. Greg Biffle*
12. Clint Bowyer
13. Jamie McMurray*
14. Casey Mears*
15. Kasey Kahne
16. Matt Kenseth*
17. Michael Waltrip
18. Martin Truex Jr.
19. Mark Martin*
20. Reed Sorenson
21. Brian Vickers
22. Kyle Busch
23. Joey Logano
24. Kevin Harvick
25. Elliott Sadler*
26. David Ragan
27. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
28. Bobby Labonte
29. Paul Menard
30. A.J. Allmendinger
31. Robby Gordon
32. Scott Speed
33. Regan Smith
34. David Stremme
35. John Andretti
36. Dexter Bean
37. Kurt Busch*
38. Denny Hamlin
39. Sterling Marlin
40. Dave Blaney
41. Joe Nemechek
42. David Gilliland
43. Patrick Carpentier

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led most laps *5 more bonus points)

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