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Oops! Tony Stewart goes from first to last for Sunday's Pocono 500 start after sliding through the grass in practice

Saturday's crash puts Tony Stewart at the back for Sunday's 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   POCONO, Pa.

   How about that Tony Stewart!
   Go, dude.
   Great start to the season.
   But then Saturday afternoon, Bam!
   And now the NASCAR tour's new points leader will be at the back of the pack in a backup car for the 2 p.m. EDT start of Sunday's Pocono 500.
   So Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon will lead the pack.
   "I went off into the grass, but I hit the right-front of the splitter (front bumper) on the access roads and ripped the whole nose off of it," Stewart said.
   So will Stewart's backup perform any better here than Gordon's backup did (poorly) at Dover? Good question.
   This race will feature NASCAR's first big test of a major new restart rule that is widely expected to make for more exciting racing…and to raise questions of strategy and tactics.
   Drivers may be reluctantly accepting the new rule, because instead of the leader being able to jump the second-place car, the two will be starting side-by-side – so expect some interesting gaming moves on restarts.
   Stewart leading the points? As the first owner-driver to do that since Alan Kulwicki in 1992, Stewart is one of the year's big success stories.
   It's halfway to the Richmond playoff cut for the championship chase, and not much is really expected to change in the top-12 between now and then, if history follows.
   So what's more surprising: Stewart atop the standings….or Carl Edwards' curious run of problems.
   "I still think Tony is crazy for starting up his own team, but he's doing a great job with it," Johnson, the three-time champ, says.
   "Those guys have been very successful.
   "So I don't know what's more shocking  -- The Roush cars got off to a quick start, with Matt Kenseth's wins (at Daytona and California), and then they've had some issues. As strong as they were last year, really all their cars, so it's a bit shocking to see that now, including Carl.
   "I look at Tony's situation and think it's a little more shocking -- as a start-up team, and where that team was before he and Ryan Newman came in to drive and management changed.
    "Yet in other ways I look at Carl and his team, and as strong as he was at the end of last year, and I think that his story is more shocking.
   "But it's a long season. Thirteen down…. and to a lot of us it feels like 8 months already. But we've got another 13 and then 10 in the chase.
   "So there is a lot of racing between now and the end of the season."
   And teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is glad of that. Earnhardt has a new crew chief, Lance McGrew, now, and they did well the first time out at Dover. Earnhardt says he's all business now. And team owner Rick Hendrick has his staff putting on a full-court press to get Earnhardt back in the game.
   Johnson says he's trying to help too.
   "When the pressure is on -- and what I watched with my own eyes was Dale Junior and Tony Eury Jr. doing everything they possibly could, and trying extremely hard to make things better  -- I've found with my own experience when we're off base and things aren't working and I'm describing things and trying to solve the problem, there's just tension," Johnson says.
   "I'll share with Junior: The best thing I can do is to tell Chad what I feel. I'd rather one person be in control. That way you work through your problems faster.
    "They had a good race…and there's still a lot of racing left. So hopefully things will get going for them.
   "It's a bummer to me to see they had to separate. I've been inside their transporters….and it hasn't been fun for them, and they've been fighting.
    "But those guys have worked really, really hard the past two years.
    "I was really impressed with Junior's feedback and understanding what was going on under him.
    "They're both very talented guys (Earnhardt and Eury), and hopefully the shake-up will get them both where they need to be."
   Johnson himself got to work with Eury Jr. at a test this week. "The ultimate judge of it will be how we run in Sonoma, but I feel we had a great test session and things went really well," Johnson said.
    "He was in a great mood, it was a great time, and we had a great test.
    "I think he's doing well.
    "In some respects it's probably nice to have the pressure off.
    "So he might have been relieved…and at the same time kind of bummed out.
    "I was trying to talk him into coming to the track, but I don't think he's ready to do that yet."


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