Tony Stewart knows it's a tough follow-up act coming off a spectacular and near-perfect team outing at his beloved hometown Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.
His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman won the pole position for last Sunday's Brickyard 400 on a dramatic final lap of qualifying then drove to victory in one of the most prestigious events on the schedule, placing Stewart in the NASCAR history books with wins as a driver (two) and team owner at the fabled speedway.
But if recent performance is any indication, there's reason to believe the Cheshire cat grin we saw on Stewart's face all week in Indy will be around this week in Pocono, Pa., as well.
When the Sprint Cup Series last visited Pocono Raceway's notoriously tough triangle in June, it proved to be a pivotal point in one of the most dramatic season turnarounds in recent years.
Enduring a painfully well-documented and properly suffered worst season start in Stewart's storied 14-year Cup career, he answered his first win of the year a week earlier at Dover, Del., with a fourth-place finish at Pocono. It was the heart of a four-race string of top-10 finishes that moved him from 24th place in the standings in March to 10th place by mid-June.
With his fourth place at Indianapolis, Stewart sits 11th in the standings, a single point behind 10th place Jeff Gordon and a guaranteed spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. With six races remaining to set the 12-driver championship field, he's only eight points behind eighth-place Greg Biffle. Thanks to his win at Dover, Stewart is in good position for a Wild Card berth as the highest-ranking driver outside the top-10 with a victory.
"We did have a slow start to our season," Stewart said. "It's frustrating knowing there are teams we outperform week in and week out that we were getting beat by, but we do feel like we've turned a corner, and we're proud of that.
"Our other teammate (rookie Danica Patrick) just keeps knocking on the door. She's gaining confidence and experience each week. That's a fun part to watch, too.
"For all three of us, I think we're gaining on that and we're proud of that."
The reason for the progress is simple according to the always-candid Stewart. It's the direct result of testing. While other teams may be saving the bulk of their test sessions for the Chase, Stewart recognized that does no good if you aren't good enough to earn a Chase berth.
The team tested at Dover. Stewart won the race.
The team tested at Pocono. And for the first time this season two of the three Stewart-Haas drivers (Newman was fifth) had top-five finishes in the same race.
"Everywhere we've tested, we've been able to make really big gains," explained Stewart. "We tested at Dover. We tested at Pocono, and both Ryan and I ran great there in June. It just seems like everywhere we've had a test so far we've been able to make gains.
"It shows how important those tests are. I don't want NASCAR to add any more of them because I don't have any more time, but it has helped."
As have the ability to capitalize on the effort and generate positive outcomes, blissful Sundays like at Indianapolis and Dover.
Not only is Stewart back in the Chase mix, Newman was the biggest winner in the standings last week -- jumping three positions to 16th bringing him to within 25 points of Gordon in 10th and equipped with a win to fight for a Wild Card berth.
The next three weeks line up well for Stewart's chances as well. After Pocono, the circuit stops at the Watkins Glen, N.Y., road course, a place where Stewart has five wins, and then moves to Michigan International Raceway, where Stewart was fifth in June.
As tough as the spring months were for Stewart and his team, things are looking up.
"That's the great thing -- seeing everybody from the 10 team (Patrick) excited, from the 14 team excited -- when we win, we all win," Stewart said. "No matter where those guys came from within the organization, we still win as a team. That's what I'm proud of.
"For those guys to be able to go from sitting behind laptops a lot in the shop, being in aero rooms, seven-post rigs, being on the road and to be kissing the bricks, that's a pretty strong statement."
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