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Preview: Smoke looking to heat up during Stewart Season

June 10, 2011, Sporting News Wire Service, NASCAR.com

It's been a busy week for Tony Stewart. He started it by performing the rather distasteful task of firing a team-founding employee, and at midweek he had to serve as ringmaster for his annual all-star dirt race for charity.

This weekend, fans will find out how good the two-time Cup Series champion is at multitasking as he heads to the Tricky Triangle of Pocono Raceway hoping to get a much-desired first victory of the season in the 5-Hour Energy 500.

"A lot of guys panic because they know it's going to get slick. I get excited when I know it's going to get slick. "

--TONY STEWART

Several factors seem to indicate that Pocono in June is a good place and time for Stewart to clear his mind of distractions and get his first victory since this past October.

First of all, Stewart Season -- known to the rest of the country as summer -- has started and that means slick tracks.

"I think we can handle the slicker conditions sometimes a little better than some of the guys around us," Stewart said of his well-known affinity for racing in the heat. "A lot of guys panic because they know it's going to get slick. I get excited when I know it's going to get slick."

Second, Stewart will start Sunday's race with momentum on his side. Last weekend at Kansas Speedway, he led 20 laps and late in the race appeared primed to end his losing streak right there. He didn't when a bad pit stop relegated him to an eighth-place finish.

"We didn't get all the fuel in it to make it to the end," Stewart said. "We had a problem getting the fuel in and we didn't get it full at that second-to-last stop so we had to pit there with about 10 laps to go. There's nothing you can do."

Finally, there is Stewart's history at the 2.5-mile, coat hanger-shaped track, which was designed by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward 40-plus years ago.

Stewart has been one of the best at the place. He has two victories and 18 top-10 finishes in 24 starts there. His average finish is 11.5. That ranks him fifth among those who will start the race on Sunday.

His first points victory as owner/driver at Stewart-Haas Racing came at Pocono two years ago. Great moment, he said.

"It just meant a lot," he said. "It meant so much to a lot of people because it had been a long road to get this organization to where it could win races. Everybody put a lot of hard work into getting this program where it's at, so it was nice to get to Victory Lane for a points race."

Stewart says the secret to doing well at Pocono is having a car which is good in all the corners.

"All three corners are different -- that's the most challenging part," he said. "It seems like you can always get your car good in two of the three corners, but the guys who are contending for the win are the guys who can get their car good for all three corners, which is very hard to do."

Getting a Stewart-Haas car to perform well this weekend will, for the first time, not be the job of Bobby Hutchens, who was let go as competition director on Monday.

Moved up in the organization is Matt Borland, who has been the team's technical director. Stewart called Borland "well suited" for his new job as vice president of competition.

Who's Hot / Not

Hot
• After falling from first in points following Las Vegas to 12th place after Talladega, Tony Stewart has three top-10s in the past five races to move back into the top 10 in eighth place.
• Denny Hamlin has posted top-10 finishes in four of the past five races and has improved from 21st place in points to 11th in the past eight races.
• Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman are the only drivers to post four top-five finishes in the eight superspeedway races this season; Edwards is the only driver with six top-10s in those superspeedway events.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. is coming off his second runner-up finish of the season, last week at Kansas; he has just two finishes outside the top-15 this year.
• Brad Keselowski has posted two of his three career top-five finishes in the past four races (third at Darlington, win at Kansas).
• Kyle Busch has gone from second place and nine points out in the past six races to fifth place and 60 points behind.
• Jeff Burton has gone 17 races without a top-10 (best in 2011 is 11th, twice); he's in 24th place compared to eighth last year.
• Ryan Newman has only one top-10 in the past 8 races, after posting four in the first five; he has dropped from second to 10th in points.
• Joey Logano has only four finishes better than 20th; he's led only two laps all season.
• Juan Montoya has failed to post a top-10 finish since scoring four in the first six races; he's fallen from seventh to 15th in points.

With the oddest track in Cup next up, and with Stewart desperate for a victory, Borland had better be.

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