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Pocono begins telling stretch for Stewart, SHR

June 09, 2012, Viv Bernstein, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Tony Stewart was only 22nd-fastest in qualifying at Pocono. (Getty Images)

LONG POND, Pa. -- When the first Sprint Cup practice was complete and the speed charts offered their early report card at Pocono Raceway on Friday, oft-testy Tony Stewart actually found himself encouraged. For a change.

"Yeah, not bad so far,'' he said after his No. 14 Chevrolet was eighth of 44 race cars. "We didn't do any qualifying runs [in testing Thursday], so I'm pretty happy with the way that the day started here. I think our race pace is fairly reasonable. We're still trying to figure out things to do to keep it good for a long run. But for the most part, we're pretty happy with it so far."

"I think after we get done on Sunday, we're all going to know a lot more about what's going on with this."

--TONY STEWART


SHR's chances


Will Stewart make the Chase? Newman? Predictions are updated thru the week, so check back often to see where they and other drivers stand.

Stewart hasn't been able to say that very often lately. Yes, he's eighth in the standings and almost a lock to make the Chase with two victories so far this season. But the last month has been mostly mediocre for the defending Cup champion. He heads into the Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR with just one top-10 in the past four races, with finishes of 24th at Talladega after a late wreck and 25th at both Charlotte and Dover. The lone bright spot was a third-place showing at Darlington.

Of course, Stewart has been through these stretches before. He has learned to look at the big picture, even if the day-to-day can be at times frustrating.

"Yeah, especially the last three weeks,'' he said. "Two weeks in Charlotte we struggled and then again last week at Dover [where] we obviously had a problem early in the race. I think the big thing especially for these first 26 races, you've got to treat it as an average and know that you're going to have a bad race here and there. You've just got to figure out if the lack of performance is because you're not running well and not getting the cars right; you've got to figure that out. But if it's because you get in a wreck on Lap 9 that shouldn't have happened, you just kind of shun that part off."

That's what happened at Dover, when Stewart was involved in a multi-car crash (watch) early in the race and was quickly out of contention.

More concerning is his performance at intermediate race tracks. Stewart was dominant early in the season, winning at Las Vegas and Fontana in March. But he was 24th at Texas in April and 17th in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte before his 25th-place showing in the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

"Texas was a big bump in the road, too, and both at Charlotte were pretty big disappointments,'' Stewart said. "But I think you kind of don't really know what to expect. I think after we get done on Sunday, we're all going to know a lot more about what's going on with this. But this week and next week are kind of two question marks really. We really don't know what to expect."

Pocono and next week's race at Michigan will be telling for Stewart-Haas Racing, including driver Ryan Newman, as the team prepares for the many intermediate tracks they'll see in the Chase.

Newman was sixth in the first practice Friday.

"Much better competitive speeds,'' SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli said. "I know it doesn't buy us anything. All that matters when we load 'em up on Sunday afternoon is where we end up and were we competitive."

Both Stewart and Newman dropped in Happy Hour, with Stewart 25th and Newman 30th as teams tuned their cars for the race.

If the Chase began today, both SHR race cars would be in the field. Newman is currently 13th in the standings, but he would bump Carl Edwards out of that final berth because Newman has a victory this season at Martinsville and Edwards is winless.

With 13 races to go before the Chase, though, that is hardly a comfort zone for SHR. Newman has three top-10s this season, but none in the past seven races.

"If the Chase was starting today I'd feel like I was in a good place,'' Zipadelli said. "But it's not starting today or tomorrow. We still have a lot of racing left. Look at the guys who have wins, they're all sitting there on the bubble. So it may take two wins to get in, you know what I mean? We certainly need to concentrate on that.

• During the first six races of the season, SHR had three wins and finished in the top 10 in half of its starts (six top-10s in 12 starts).
• In the seven races since its last win at Martinsville, the team only has two top-10s in 14 attempts.
• At least one driver finished outside the top 20 in six of the past seven races, including two races where both drivers finished outside the top 20.
• SHR has 16 Cup wins; the first came at Pocono in June 2009 when Tony Stewart won the race.

"Especially for Ryan, we need to get the consistency and get him some good solid finishes. He's been finishing, just not where we need to be. So we need to work on that for sure."

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