Stewart could notch first win of season at second trip to Pocono
Tony Stewart's rebound was all but expected given his history of summer success
A strong showing during the last trip to Pocono makes Clint Bowyer a contender
Carl Edwards is feeling the pressure to end his team's season-long drought
Last June, Pocono was filled with more drama than an episode of All My Children. Joey Logano taught us DeLana Harvick, not husband, Kevin, wore the firesuit in the family while A.J. Allmendinger chose to give Kasey Kahne his going away present for Rick Hendrick next year -- a block-induced flip that nearly launched him outside the race track. For me, though, the lasting spectacle from that weekend surrounded a two-time champ whose season, and temper, turned on a dime.
Tony Stewart's year up to then was a yawner. He was 16th in points with just a single top-5 finish, the epitome of a sophomore slump as owner/driver. One year removed from being the point leader, the stress of those problems were taking their toll: seeing him answer questions was like watching a volcano getting ready to erupt. Sure enough, it was a surprising third-place finish on Sunday, caused by a little luck and a lot of track position, that got the temperamental Smoke blowing off a little steam in his post-race presser.
"Restarts were idiotic today," he said, using the competition as his punching bag to get a little cocky. "I've seen some of the worst driving I've ever seen in my life in a professional series right here today. So for anybody that's looking for drama for the next couple races, start looking, 'cause I can promise I'm going to start making the highlight reel the next couple weeks."
Six weeks later, the season's been righted amidst five more top-10 finishes, launching him to ninth in points and comfortably inside the Chase. Considering Stewart's a late bloomer -- 33 of his 37 wins have come after June 1st -- breaking out of his funk was all but expected.
Just not the way he's done it. Over the last few months, we've seen Logano, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards... heck, even mild-mannered Martin Truex, Jr. starting their own episodes of NASCAR Family Feud. It's the "Have at it, boys" officials were begging for, the perfect environment for the sport's former bad boy to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. He's even the one who started this whole Big Brother fining business, albeit his was made public: a $10,000 spanking for claiming the sport intentionally threw cautions to spice up the show in '07.
All of which makes his quiet-as-a-mouse summer surge all the more puzzling. The only highlight reel he's been making is -- gasp! -- thanking his sponsors for support, his team for working hard, and shooting a few hoops with Jim Boeheim this week. Basketball? That's the best this guy can do? We're talking a man who nearly got fired once for punching a photographer.
Now 39 and shackled with responsibility, it's possible maturity is finally catching up to Stewart. But wouldn't you think there's a secret sense of urgency with a team most believed could contend for the championship? With just 20 laps led in his last 11 starts, the No. 14 team is still nursing an ugly zero in the win column. Those aren't the type of statement-inducing numbers that get Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin quivering in their boots.
Yet Stewart has kept himself well within striking distance, just a single dominating performance away from reasserting himself as a title contender. That's why I'm keeping an eye on him this Sunday. After all, this track serves as a good gauge for how far the No. 14 has come, the same place he got his first win as an owner/driver last June. And in the midst of all this NASCAR in-fighting, wouldn't it be nice to see Tony do a little trash talking in Victory Lane?
Here's four other drivers to watch during a second trip to the Tricky Triangle:
1. Clint Bowyer
RCR's forgotten third stooge had the fastest car at Pocono this June, leading 59 of the first 98 laps. But in a matter of minutes, he got irritated by the way teammate Kevin Harvick roughed him up to take over first, lost focus temporarily, and smacked the wall. He still brought the wounded car home ninth, a credit to the strength of his RCR Chevy. If they can just bring the same setup back to fine-tune, he enters the weekend a hidden favorite to end a two-year victory drought.
2. Denny Hamlin
How could you talk Pocono without mentioning Hamlin's name? Four of his 13 victories have come at the triangle, including the last two in a row. But since winning there and at Michigan in June, the last five races have not been kind to the No. 11 team: one top-10, four laps led and apparently a $50,000 fine. A strong finish Sunday is imperative to stop the bleeding.
3. Carl Edwards
Coming off three straight top-10 finishes, the No. 99 team has momentum heading to a track where they've won twice with Edwards behind the wheel. With owner Jack Roush in the hospital after a serious plane crash, the pressure's on to win one for him and end a season-long victory drought for Ford.
4. Mark Martin
Sure, he hasn't exactly been top-5 or even top-10 material as of late. But this team started to show signs of life at Indy, and now Martin heads to a place where he's scored more career top-10 finishes (32) than anyplace else on the circuit. Thirteenth in points, 62 behind Bowyer, Martin is feeling the pressure to launch his bid for that elusive first championship.