LONG POND - Last August, Tony Stewart was awarded the pole position by default at the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 thanks to some rainy weather and being atop the points standings.
This time around, Stewart wasn't handed the lead spot. He earned it.
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala claimed his third pole in the last four races at Pocono, as he finished qualifying with a time of 52.511 seconds and a speed of 171.393 miles-per-hour. He bettered his practice time from earlier in the day by nearly one second and three mph.
"It felt good," said Stewart, who was one of two drivers (Juan Pablo Montoya) to have an average speed of over 171 mph. "It felt good through turn one. I got on the radio and told (the crew) we were good so far. Then I felt like we made good time through the tunnel and told them we were good again through two.
"I didn't know how it was going to be through turn three. I felt like I might have lost a little bit of time there, but we got through there pretty good too. Apparently better than I thought. Then I got to the line and they told me the time. It was a good lap."
Stewart has nine top-ten finishes in his last ten races at Pocono, including a first-place finish in June of last year. His only other win at 'The Tricky Triangle' came in June of 2003. Along with his two wins, Stewart has eight top-fives and 17 top-tens for his career at Pocono. Earlier this summer Stewart finished third at the Pocono 500.
"It just seems to be one of those tracks where at the end of the day we end up with a decent run," said Stewart. "We're not spectacular. We've never been spectacular here at any point, but we always seem to be the guy that nobody sees until the end of the day.
"We kind of come into a good run and end up with a good finish out of it. I wish I had an answer as to how or why it is that way, but I'm just glad it is that way."
Stewart has yet to win a race this season. Although he has not taken a trip down 'Victory Lane,' Stewart has ten top-ten finishes and currently sits ninth in the points standings. Still, he is only 116 points behind third place.
This is Stewart's second pole of the season. He has taken three of the last four poles at Pocono, however both starting positions last year were set via car owner points.
"If you are going to pick a place where you want to have good track position - this is it," admitted Stewart. "It is really important here. If I don't do what I did here last year and crash the car in happy hour, at least we will have a good starting spot."
Juan Pablo Montoya and Denny Hamlin will round out the top three. Montoya came in with a time of 52.602 and a speed of 171.096. He also bettered his numbers in the same way that Stewart did.
"We ran eighth in practice and I thought the car felt really good, but I didn't get everything out of it," said Montoya. "But I don't know. When I crossed the line I was waiting for the guys to say 'pit 15' or something. When they said 'pit 1' (at the time), I asked them if they were serious or if they were joking with me.
"I am happy. We changed the car a lot. We haven't really run as well as we need to on the big tracks. On the small tracks we have been running really well. We are trying a little bit of a different approach on the car and it seems to be working."
Hamlin currently sits in third place in the points standings and has five wins on the year. He has four career wins at Long Pond, tying him with Jeff Gordon for the second most all-time (Bill Elliott, 5). The defending champ swept both events in 2006 and is looking to do the same in 2010 after winning the Pocono 500 in June.
"It is a good start for us," said Hamlin, who is one of only two current drivers (Jimmie Johnson, 9.5) to average a top-ten finish at Pocono (8.6). "This weekend has been a little different than weekends past. We usually struggle for speed, but have a good handling car. That's typically how we win here.
"Yet today we had a really fast car, but the handling wasn't quite where I wanted it. That's a good thing to have though. We have two practices Saturday to fine-tune it and hopefully once we get it closer we will really have something good."