In the Sprint Cup Series, it has become incredibly rare for owner-drivers to win. In fact, it had been over 10 years since the last time it had happened (Note: Dale Earnhardt does not count here because he was not driving one of his own cars).
On Sunday, Tony Stewart achieved the feat.
Despite having to use a backup car due to crash damage from a Saturday practice crash and having to start at the rear of the field; Stewart was able to race up through the entire field with relative ease.
Stewart’s pit crew put him in winning position by getting him off pit road first during the final round of pit stops under caution on lap 159. From there, fuel conservation was the name of the game.
Stewart ran off to a nearly three-second lead over then-second place Kasey Kahne and held that lead. When Kahne pitted, that lead became a nearly seven-second lead over Carl Edwards. At that point, Stewart backed his car down, even to the point where he was driving laps without braking at all.
Luckily, the fuel held out and Stewart claimed his first victory of the season. It is his first victory since the AMP Energy 500 last season and the first win for an owner-driver since Ricky Rudd in the NAPA AutoCare 500 at Martinsville in September, 1998.
After the race, the owner and driver of the No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet was very pleased with his performance.
“Darian (Grubb, Stewart’s crew chief) said we were not going to try to be fancy… to get track position,” Stewart said in the post-race press conference. “[The plan was to] just…stick to our game plan and we did that.”
As for the No. 14 Impala, Stewart was also quite impressed.
“We had a car that we were consistently in the top three I think speed-wise all day, and we were able to run guys down,” Stewart said in the post-race press conference.
Edwards also gambled on his fuel to finish second. However, he was not all that amped about the result.
“I’ll probably be happy later today but right now, man, to be that close to victory and to not win, that is frustrating,” Edwards said. “We ran really well. I could pass people. I felt like if Tony and I had to race there at the end, I felt really good about my chances of being able to just win the race on speed.”
Behind Stewart and Edwards, David Reutimann continued his great form with a third-place finish. Jeff Gordon was fourth and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five. Marcos Ambrose finished sixth, his first top-10 finish on an unrestricted oval. Jimmie Johnson, who ran out of fuel on the last lap, coasted to seventh. Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton and Sam Hornish Jr. rounded out the top 10.
Points Standings (Top 12)
The maiden victory for Stewart-Haas Racing on Sunday allowed Stewart to expand his lead in the point standings. His advantage is now 71 points over Gordon. Gordon, who at one point described his race car as “junk,” was the highest finishing car that stopped for fuel late in the going (fourth). Johnson maintains the third spot after a seventh-place finish on Sunday. This could have been second, but Johnson ran out of fuel with a little less than half a lap to go, forcing him to coast to the line. Newman is up to fourth in the standings this week after managing a fifth-place finish.
Kurt Busch fell one spot to fifth after suffering water pump failure late in the going. Busch was forced to pit his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge on lap 130 with high water temperature and water spurting out of the overflow. 18 laps later, the team had replaced the water pump and the Dodge was back out on the track. However, Kurt could do no better than 37th at the end of the race. Edwards was the big mover of the week, improving five places to sixth as a result of his second-place finish. That is really a reflection of how close it is right now in the standings. Carl is sixth, but only 85 points ahead of 13th.
Greg Biffle is up two positions to seventh after an 11th-place finish. This was despite significant brake problems that hampered the team for a good chunk of the race. Matt Kenseth remains in the eighth spot, followed by Kyle Busch. Kyle, who dropped three spots in the points, just never really got the handle on Sunday. Even then, the 22nd-place finish he received was not really typical of his day, since he ran higher than that for almost the entire race.
Burton remains in the 10th position, followed by Reutimann in 11th. Reutimann turned a gamble on fuel mileage into a third-place finish that brought him back into the top 12 for the first time since Richmond. Denny Hamlin was the big loser at Pocono, dropping five places to the 12th and final Chase position. For Hamlin, who was the quickest in practice, the trouble started as soon as he shifted up to fourth gear at the start. The car died and coast to a halt, causing a yellow. A quick fix did not work, causing a second caution. Eventually, a broken fuel line was replaced, and Hamlin ran competitively the rest of the race, but never gained any of his 22 laps lost back. Mark Martin, who was in 12th before the race, is just one point behind Hamlin in 13th.
Around the 35th Place Cut-Off
There was no movement in or out of the Top 35 at Pocono. However, the margin between the No. 34 Taco Bell Chevrolet for Front Row Motorsports and the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota has narrowed slightly. Scott Speed finished 32nd, one lap down on Sunday, while John Andretti finished 35th, two laps down. This three position difference allowed Speed’s No. 82 to gain nine points on Andretti’s No. 34. The difference is now 41 points between 35th and 36th places.
There was actually no position movement between 31st and 40th in owner points on Sunday. However, there is now a tie for 31st between the No. 6 UPS Ford for Roush Fenway Racing and the No. 55 NAPA Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. The two teams are tied on 1,265 points, but David Ragan’s team gets the advantage because of Ragan’s sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500 (Waltrip finished right behind him in seventh).
Meanwhile, the struggles of Kevin Harvick continue. Another mediocre run to 24th on Sunday dropped Harvick’s No. 29 to 26th in the standings. Now, they are in no danger of falling out of the Top 35 (they are still 397 points in front of the No. 82 in 36th), but it is definitely something to keep track of.