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So how far can you race on 18 gallons of gas? Tony Stewart did 102 miles in winning at Pocono

Tony Stewart leading Carl Edwards down the stretch in Sunday's Pocono 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

    POCONO, Pa.
    Fuel mileage?
    Well, you'll have that in long, long races, but a gas-mileage race to the finish, like Sunday's, is rather like kissing your sister.
    Drivers shouldn't be backing off at the end of a NASCAR race but rather pouring on the coal.
    Still, Tony Stewart wasn't worried about any asterisk beside his name on the Pocono 500 trophy, his first as an owner-driver, and certainly not a fluke, despite the almost-flukey finish.
    Stewart appeared to be turning off his engine on the straights during the final laps, to save fuel, but he wouldn't say exactly what tactics he used to hold off Carl Edwards, David Reutimann, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in the four-hour run around this 2-1/2-mile track.
    Stewart has been hot most of the season, remarkable, even with engineering support and engines from Rick Hendrick. And teammate Ryan Newman has also been hot. In fact at one point in the final moments Sunday Newman was within shouting distance of the win; he finished fifth.
    The big loser of the day was hard-luck Denny Hamlin, whose car balked in the opening laps, forcing him behind the wall for repairs.
    And Jimmie Johnson had a rough day of it too, though he held on for a seventh, despite running out of gas the last lap.
    Stewart's performances this season – he won the Charlotte All-star race three weeks ago – and his consistency have surprised just about everyone.
    "I did not think he would get it done like this," Edwards said of Stewart's first few months as owner-driver.
    And Stewart, with the win, actually padded his lead in the Sprint Cup standings, another tribute to the amazing strength of his new crew, headed by crew chief Darian Grubb and team manager Bobby Hutchens.
    But Hendrick, though his 'satellite' Stewart-Newman operation is stealing headlines, can't be too upset with the season's first four months, because his teams hold the top four spots in the standings heading this week to Michigan International Speedway.
    Maybe that will help support GM's pitch to the bankruptcy guys back in Detroit that NASCAR racing is a good value marketing tool.
    Ford rival Jack Roush had control of the race early, with Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth all running very strong.
    But the gas mileage game, which came into play just after a late rain shower gave teams pause to consider final strategies, jumbled up the finish. Some drivers stopped for fuel, rather than risk running out. Other drivers gambled on going the distance.
   And Stewart appeared doomed until the very last moments of the race.
   How Stewart babied his Chevy to the finish was almost a mystery.
   Edwards said when it comes down to gas mileage finishes like this – and Michigan next weekend could well be similar – his team needs a better game plan: "We need a better system – we don't really have any system," Edwards said.
    "Bob (Osborne, his crew chief) said 'Worse case, you run out X. Best case, you run out Y.'
    "So I said 'Well, which is it?'
    "I didn't think Tony could save that much fuel, but he did a good job."
    Reutimann said his crew chief Rodney Childers told him right from the start of the final run to try to save fuel. "So I was trying to be easy with it…but I'm not very good at that," Reutimann said. "Rodney kept telling me to save some fuel, and I asked him 'Well, do I need to ride or do I need to race?' And he just said 'Do the best you can.'
   "Well, that's not really an answer."
   Reutimann's third was his best full-race finish of the season; he won the rain-shortened 600 at Charlotte two weeks ago by gambling on not stopping for fuel near what turned out to be the end of the race, while race leaders did stop.
    Edwards was clearly disappointed, but he tried to be upbeat. He was red-hot last season, but this spring he's been not as dominant, and questions of why has swirled around him, which has been aggravating.
   So Edwards looked at the bright spots. After all he is sixth in the standings, with seven top-10s in 14 runs.
  "My guys were great on pit road; they really stepped it up," Edwards said.
   "We led the most laps.
     "That's good stuff.
     "I'll probably be happier later today…but to be this close to victory and not win is frustrating.
    "However, the cool part is that we feel we're in the form we were last season (when he won nine times). If it had come down to me and Tony at the end, I felt really good about being able to win the race on speed.
    "But it's about the points, so you have to keep your pride in check. The real race is with 10 to go."
   That of course is the championship playoffs in the fall.
   "We were overall stronger this week than we've been," Edwards said.

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