Pocono 400 Notebook: Stewart takes blame for late-race penalty
By Seth Livingstone
NASCAR Wire Service
As laps clicked down in Sunday's Pocono 400, Stewart-Haas Racing seemed primed for a celebration, running 1-2-3 at Pocono Raceway.
Tony Stewart was leading teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch with 45 laps remaining when Harvick was forced to pit with a left front tire going down.
Then Stewart was penalized for speeding on pit road.
Suddenly, Busch, who also pitted, was back to 19th, Stewart was relegated to the tail end of the lead lap in 31st and Harvick was a lap down in 32nd.
"One hundred percent driver error,” said Stewart of his pit road snafu. “I gave my guys grief last week with a sixth-place run when I thought we should have run in the top three. Then I threw it away this week.”
"It’s just a shame,” said Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas. “We had a strong weekend as far as speed. It was encouraging. We had a good day going. It just hasn’t been our year so far.”
When Stewart took the lead from Brad Keselowski on Lap 76, it marked only the second time this season that the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion had led a race. He led 74 laps from the pole at Texas Motor Speedway and led 24 at Pocono.
Busch, who led five laps, overcame early issues with his transmission slipping out of fourth gear and ended up with a third-place finish.
“At one point, it was great to see Tony leading, Harvick second and we were third,” he said. “That’s what we wanted to see with our Stewart-Haas Chevys up front. This is the point in the season where each [team] starts to build its own identity. Our team, as young as we are, this is the type of finish that will build the confidence.”
Stewart clawed his way back to 13th, one spot ahead of Harvick, who has been the fastest driver in both practice sessions on Saturday. SHR driver Danica Patrick also had a decent race going. Although off pit cycle, she was second with 25 laps to go only to see her afternoon end in a crash (after a tire problem) with 23 laps left and a 37th-place finish.
LARSON LEADS LAPS
Rookie Kyle Larson not only recorded his sixth top-10 finish but led his first laps of the season.
“It was a lot better finish than I thought we were going to get,” said Larson, who set the pace for Laps 102-108 after winning Saturday’s ARCA race at Pocono.
Larson joked earlier in the weekend about being uncomfortable with shifting gears, a necessity in the Sprint Cup cars at Pocono.
"To be honest with you, I did miss a couple of shifts – just twice, probably. I think I learned a little bit [from the ARCA race] that helped me get through Turn 2.”
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth had a rocky time at Pocono, where they started 20th and 26th, respectively.
Johnson, who managed to lead the race briefly when he was off fuel cycle, had battled his way as high as fourth place when he ran into Marcos Ambrose while exiting his pit stall during a caution on Lap 75. Crew chief Chad Knaus accepted responsibility.
"He (Knaus) thought the No. 9 had left his pit box, so there was just confusion on pit road,” said Johnson, who ended up spinning his car after contact. “I feel terrible for the No. 9 guys and hurting their race car. [There was] also a tire changer and tire carrier on the right front of the No. 51 (Justin Allgaier) car – and how I didn’t hit those guys is beyond me. It wouldn’t have been good.”
Kenseth, who finished 25th to remain second in the point standings behind Jeff Gordon (eighth), failed to mount a challenge on Sunday. His crew did all it could to repair the nose of his Toyota after early-race contact with Jamie McMurray punched a hole in the front end and damaged his hood.
Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, a four-time winner at Pocono, was strong enough to lead three times for four laps, but was never positioned to challenge Brad Keselowski or Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final laps.
CHANCE TO RELAX
Earnhardt says that being virtually locked into the Chase by virtue of his two wins prior to road course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen is a huge relief.
“I can run OK at the Glen every once in a while, but Sonoma – it’s embarrassing, man,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve decided to just go there without a test and wing it. Now, we don’t have to dig and gouge for every single position and we don’t have to worry if it’s a total disaster or if it doesn’t work out or if we get spun out on the last lap. We can just go have fun."
Perhaps more importantly, Earnhardt believes that having two victories in the first 14 races of the season should help his team effectively prepare for Chase contention.
“It definitely made a difference [winning] at Daytona. Now, having two wins is going to make it even easier – a lot less stress,” he said. “That could mean good things going into the Chase. That’s got to be a positive for our composure and psyche going into the Chase – not having to stress all the way through (the 26th race) at Richmond.”