After starting 15th in Sunday’s 5-Hour Energy 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and spending the first 123 laps of the 200-lap contest working on the handling of his racecar, Tony Stewart finally broke into the top-five for the first time on lap 124.
Unfortunately on lap 126, he radioed to crew chief Darian Grubb that his No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala had lost third gear. With drivers shifting in each of Pocono’s three turns throughout the 500-mile event, Grubb and Stewart knew that a top-10 finish was nearly impossible and had to settle for a disappointing 21st-place result. It was only the sixth time in 25 career Sprint Cup starts at Pocono where Stewart has finished outside the top-10.
“We had a good car,” said Stewart, who has victories at Pocono in June 2003 and June 2009. “As soon as we cracked the top-five, we lost third gear. At some point things have to start going our way. It’s just one of those things.”
On lap seven, Stewart clipped the outside retaining wall with the right rear of his car while exiting turn three of the 2.5-mile triangle and radioed to Grubb that his car was too tight. When the caution flag waved on lap 10, Stewart came to pit road whereupon four new tires and a chassis adjustment were taken to remedy the condition. However, no fueling occurred, as NASCAR mandated a competition caution on lap 20 and would not allow teams to add fuel before that mark.
Stewart’s car was still not to his liking, so when the caution came out again on lap 19 for debris, which also served as the competition caution, Grubb ordered the Mobil 1/Office Depot over-the-wall crew to change four tires, add fuel and make a track bar and front shock adjustment.
That big swing by Grubb quickly began to pay dividends. While Stewart restarted in 27th on lap 22, he was up to 19th by lap 31. From there, Grubb continued massaging the handling of the car, while Stewart dealt with a bit of an issue inside the cockpit in the form of a broken throttle spring.
Each time he wanted to roll out of the throttle, Stewart couldn’t just take his foot off the pedal, as it would not retract with the broken spring. Instead, he had to utilize the toe loop on the gas pedal to pull the pedal back.
Despite that, Stewart inched closer to the top-10, and after pitting for four tires, fuel and a tire pressure adjustment under caution on lap 112, he restarted in 12th. From there, the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet came to life, and Stewart moved to fifth by lap 124, just before losing third gear.
When a caution came out on lap 155 for debris, Stewart was in 11th place, but Grubb knew that without third gear, a difficult decision was ahead of them. If Stewart pitted with the 22 cars on the lead lap and came out in 11th, not having third gear on the restart would cause a dangerous situation for Stewart and his competitors. If Stewart had any trouble coming up through the gears and his car did not get up to speed, he could get hit from behind and not only suffer damage to his machine, but also damage other driver’s cars as well.
With that in mind, the decision was made to stay out on the track, lead a lap in order to get a valuable bonus point, and then restart the race at the back of the field in 22nd. Stewart managed to climb as high as 16th with 22 laps remaining, but faded outside the top-20 when the checkered flag flew.