“Make it two in a row, Tony!” a fan yelled as Stewart hustled through the Pocono Raceway garage.
With a second practice session on tap, Stewart had little time Saturday to dissect why his car is suddenly one of the ones to beat.
But it sure is.
Stewart is coming off his first win of the season at Dover and his second straight top-10 finish, results that have thrust the three-time Cup champion into the No. 1 wild-card spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
For an added boost, Stewart was one of the few drivers who participated last month in an open Pocono test in the Gen-6 race car. With practice and qualifying washed out Friday, Stewart and crew chief Steve Addington have additional resources on hand to help master the 2½-mile triangle track.
And there are more reasons to think Stewart can keep the push going at Pocono. His last win here in 2009 was his first as a car owner at Stewart-Haas Racing, and he finished fifth and third at the two Pocono races last season.
No Cup driver has won consecutive races this season, but a confident Stewart has always been a dangerous Stewart. That could be the difference today.
“It’s definitely momentum that we need right now,” he said. “It’s hopefully quieted some of the rumors that were a big drama at the shop for us. So, getting that calmed down was as much of the problem as anything.”
Stewart used his post-race news conference at Dover to sternly deny he was ever considering giving Addington the boot because of a slow start that had the team mired around 20th in the points standings. Addington, who took over as Stewart’s crew chief last season, appreciated that his boss backed him so publicly. Addington made a late pit call to take two tires at Dover that was one of the defining decisions at Dover.
“It’s good to get that hopefully behind us,” Stewart said. “Now we can get back to work again and worry about stuff that we should be worrying about.”
Like making sure this two-race uptick is the start of a summer surge and not just a brief respite from a mediocre season.
For whatever reason, Stewart sputtered along for most of the season to a series of middle-of-the-pack finishes. He had seven straight races of 17th or worse and only one other top 10 before a seventh two races ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He passed Juan Pablo Montoya with three laps left last week at Dover to snap a 30-race winless streak and remind everyone that it’s always a mistake to count ol’ Smoke out of the Chase picture.
His 48th career win pushed him to 16th in the points standings and aided his cause for a wild-card spot. The two drivers in the 11th to 20th spot in the standings with the most wins earn a slot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Stewart is the only driver in those spots with a victory.
Of course, Stewart is only 33 points outside the top 10, which isn’t much for him to make up over the next 13 races before the Chase field is set. Stewart has 42 career victories after June 1.
“That’s all we can do is build on it and continue to improve,” SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said. “When we win a bunch of these things in a row, it means that we don’t have to work on it anymore.”
As a team owner, Stewart can’t even relax just because the No. 14 is showing improvement. SHR’s Ryan Newman (20th) and Danica Patrick (29th) have yet to consistently run at the front of the field, and Stewart won’t truly enjoy his success until all three cars can be considered regular checkered flag contenders.
“He has a huge drive to be fast and make the team better and make his car better and you feel that, for sure. You also feel that passion. And that passion goes for the people that he has around him,” Patrick said. “He really enjoys them and wants them there and treats them well. Maybe a long time ago I thought I heard that you can get people to work out of fear or love, and he gets them to work out of love. I think he cares about them.
“It makes it nice to be around somebody like that.”