If you're going to poke this bear, better bring a big, big stick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Despite winning at Dover, Tony Stewart is still grumpy.
Now Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's competition director/general manager, has seen this movie before. In their 10 years together at Joe Gibbs', and during this recent run together at Stewart's own team.
Still that's not a smile on Zippy's face.
Maybe it's the simple fact that that win was more a bit of a lucky gamble by crew chief Steve Addington and that restart controversy between Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Putting it bluntly Stewart and teammates Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick have shown little speed so far this season. On the lap-leader scoreboard Toyota's Kyle Busch is tops, with 955 laps in the lead.
In contrast, Stewart has led just 27 laps, Newman 11 laps, Patrick five laps; that's a total of 43 laps. Their Chevy 'engineering' teammates -- Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- have led a total of 1,161 laps.
Sounds like the right-hand isn't telling everything to the left-hand.
Funny: This guy doesn't look like an elephant. But Matt Kenseth's strong runs this spring with his new team, contrasted with Team Ford's struggles, does raise questions (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Then there's increasing criticism of high-profile Patrick, who simply isn't running that well in this her first full season in Cup.
And questions about Newman and sponsorships and 2014 contracts and all that.
And the looming addition of high-profile Kevin Harvick next season, and the need to start laying a game plan and signing up crewmen for that venture....
Add to this volatile a rumor that Stewart and Addington aren't getting along that well at the moment....and stand back when you raise that Addington issue with Stewart:
"I don't know who you guys are talking to in the garage area. You guys need to come talk to us... because we never discussed any of this crap that's been going around.
"It's been a huge distraction for our organization. It ticks me off that I've got to sit here and go through this crap because of you guys.
"If you're going to put something in about the possibility of somebody moving around, you might want to talk to the guys that write the checks, the guys that work there, and find out the facts before you guys go throwing darts on the dartboard.
"I'll be honest, it pissed me off because it was a big distraction to my team, my organization. It kept us from doing our job... because people are hearing rumors and reading what you guys write.
"Totally inaccurate and unprofessional in my opinion. If you're going to write that, you'd better have some facts behind it, because there wasn't anybody in our camp that said anything. If you heard it from somebody else, that's not good enough. You'd better do a better job, because it was a big distraction.
"When I finally got wind of it, I was ticked. I don't need that crap. I've got enough stuff to worry about, keeping three cars competitive. Having to deal with a bunch of bull crap that's inaccurate and speculation, to me at this level is unacceptable.
"Our organization doesn't need. It didn't deserve it."
Tony Stewart (R) isn't happy about rumors. But crew chief Steve Addington (L) understands this sport....and says he's glad Stewart has given him a vote of support, despite the slow start to the season. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Addington himself is no stranger to the hot seat. After all he worked with Kurt Busch for several years, and Kyle Busch, and the year after leading Kyle to an eight-win season Addington suddenly found himself on the outside. And Addington realizes -- here perhaps a nod toward the man he replaced, Darian Grubb, who led Stewart to the 2011 tour championship with five wins in the year's final 10 races, and yet then got the boot -- winning doesn't guarantee much in this business.
Whatever may or may not be going on behind the scenes, Addington is trying to keep cool about it all:
"When you're down, it tells a lot about a group of guys to pull together and try to get out of that slump... and I think it's headed in the right direction.
"I think that we made gains at Charlotte. We got to test Pocono, and so we are excited about that."
And Addington says Stewart has given him a vote of support, in trying to quash the rumors.
Cue Greg Zipadelli.
Zippy runs things for Stewart-Newman-Patrick, and he comes from the Gibbs camp, where he won two Cup championships with Stewart. Zippy knows his game, and he knows his driver.
Despite Stewart's slump, rivals struggling toward making the playoffs are pointing to the Dover win as almost assuring Stewart of making the championship chase. That one win essentially wipes out the previous 12 weeks of frustrations, perhaps.
Zipadelli isn't going that far, to be sure. "We haven't made the chase yet there, buddy. There are a lot of people between us and there (the 11th-place points standings cutoff) who could win a race.
"We are one step close to it, though. And our performance is getting better. Darlington, Charlotte, Dover.
"The most important thing is to get our cars running better. All the teams."
Friday's rain, and qualifying washout, did Tony Stewart no favors. He'll be back in Row 10 for the start of the Pocono Party 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Part of this issue is the somewhat curious balance of power among tour teams in this season with the new 2013s.
Yes, Gibbs' Toyota men are dominating, showing a lot of power. But engine issues hang like a heavy cloud. Kyle Busch just blew another engine, at Charlotte, while leading. Matt Kenseth too has lost engines.
And now the head of the Toyota engineering operations for some 15 years, Lee White, has abruptly resigned. David Wilson, a NASCAR veteran, is taking White's spot, but Wilson has some big shoes to fill. And a shakeup like this midway through the season doesn't look like a good sign.
On the Chevy side, Johnson and Kasey Kahne are both hot stuff. But elsewhere in the Chevy camp things appear much more iffy and less consistent.
And on the Ford side, well, even top dogs Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle concede Team Ford is struggling at these mid-sized tracks, which are the heart of the sport.
In NASCAR racing, it's extremely difficult, if almost impossible, to catch up once a team gets behind this deep into the season.
Jimmie Johnson is angry about that Dover deal. But he's cool and calm about it all. And fast here at Pocono. Rivals beware...especially on restarts (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So where does Stewart-Newman-Patrick fit into this picture?
"It is a little confusing, this whole balance of power," Zipadelli says.
"But look at Kasey -- he could have/should have won the three races that Matt Kenseth won.
"And Jimmie, despite some bad issues, is still up there leading the points.
"Jeff Gordon runs fast....Kevin Harvick is starting to show some light....Carl Edwards runs decent at times....Ricky Stenhouse too....though it looks like the Ford guys have to work hard on their stuff all day to get there.
"We've been getting better the last couple of weeks. Obviously we still have room for improvement.
"It's a new car and a lot of new things this year, and teams are getting into it at different times.
"The Gibbs guys started the season pretty strong.
"We've spent a lot of time on our speedway (Daytona/Talladega) cars, and we unloaded at Daytona pretty strong, and finished with two top-10s, and Tony was as good as anyone, or better.
"You see it all the time in this sport -- it's up, it's down....
"It's really hard today to keep everybody motivated and always have the latest-and-greatest..."
One particular issue this season is speed. The new 2013s are as much as five miles an hour quicker than last year's cars, and feel more stable in the corners.
That sudden increase is speed may become even more of a prominent issue in these next few races: The frontstraight here at Pocono Raceway is the longest on the tour, and drivers will hit 215 mph going into the flat turn one. Next weekend's Michigan 400 is on that smooth new asphalt where drivers last year hit 216-218 mph on the front stretch, forcing Goodyear to go to backup tires. And in testing for next month's Brickyard 400, speeds were a sizzling 214 mph into turn one, which remember is only banked nine degrees.
All that can make for engineering headaches.
And consider the men at the wheel -- are we seeing now that some of these drivers are simply faster drivers than others? Is it just that only a handful of drivers can really drive these 2013s to the max right now?
"I'm sure that's the case," Zipadelli says.
"These are stable race cars, and they have more downforce. And to some people, that may feel better.
"And there is more security.
"I don't know that the speed -- if your car drives good -- feels that fast.
"Sometimes it's the slower cars, that don't drive good, that feel loose, where the car sits on 'top' of the track, that may really feel 'faster.'
"These cars drive good, because of the downforce. So I don't know that the drivers have a sense of the extra speed.
"But then I'm not sitting in the seat."
Of course the issue of 'clean air' is even more prominent now, at these faster speeds. A leader has much more of an advantage, despite some tweaks NASCAR has made to try to change that dynamic.
"Clean air is as big a deal as it's ever been, or bigger," Zipadelli concedes.
"But tire fall-off seems to be more prominent with this car, which is awesome."
Zipadelli and others have long railed against rock-hard tires that don't fall off, preferring tires that give up speed as they wear over an 80-mile run, because that presents more tactical options.
"It gives us the options of no-tire pit stops or two-tire stops or four-tire stops...."
At Dover, for example, Stewart, Montoya and Johnson all took just two tires that last stop for the 20-mile sprint.
Carl Edwards: game face on. And starting on the front row (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Teams finally got out on the track Saturday, but the rain left the asphalt with 'weepers,' ground water seeping up, particularly in the third turn. "You hit them and it's worse than I remember them, how it makes the car jump around," Stewart sais. "I about lost the car twice running through water.
"It's like ice. You don't see it. You hit it and it makes the car jump out from under you. It's a pretty hairy moment.
"You always fight water pumping-up through the track here."
Johnson and Edwards are on the front row for the 1 p.m. ET start of the Pocono Party 400, the grid and pit spots set by owner point standings with Friday's rain.
And Johnson, still miffed at what happened in the closing laps at Dover to cost him a win, arrived here with his game face on, and his jaw as taut as in many weeks. That's a bad sign for rivals. And Johnson says he plans to play that restart game sharper this weekend.
Still, even though this race is now only 400 miles instead of 500, fuel mileage and luck -- this is a huge, 2-1/2-mile track -- frequently play a bigger role in winning and losing than just speed and strategy.
Winning here is sometimes a matter of survival, Edwards says, as much as anything:
"You have to make it to the end with your transmission... which is tougher to do than it sounds. You shift six times each lap -- downshift and then upshift in each corner, and that can be very, very tough on the equipment.
"Then mentally this is a pretty tough race. We call it an oval, but it's a lot like a road course: three distinct corners, three braking zones that are a lot different.
"And the aero part is very interesting. You do some drafting here down the straightaways... and you definitely don't want to be right up against somebody's bumper in the corner.
"All those things you have to do well. Plus, you have to have the right strategy. This race has come down to fuel mileage.....so that will be key."