LONG POND, Pa. (AP) – Tony Stewart lost his pole position and will start from the back of the pack for the Pocono 500 after wrecking his car during practice at Pocono Raceway on Saturday.

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup points leader lost control of his No. 14 Chevrolet and spun off the tunnel turn at the end of Saturday’s first practice. The car spun into the grass, sending mud and sod flying and ripped off the nose of his car.

His Stewart-Haas Racing crew quickly got to work on the backup. Stewart became the pole sitter for Sunday’s Pocono 500 when rain washed out Friday’s qualifying and start positions were based on the points.

Stewart was confident he could still make a strong run in the backup.

“I feel like it’s better than the primary car,” Stewart said.

He posted the third-fastest practice time with a lap of 166.701 mph during the first practice Saturday and hit 164.817 with the backup in the second practice session.

“I was happier with that car then I was the first one,” Stewart said. “If I’d known the second one was going to be so good, I would have crashed the first one the first lap out.”

Stewart’s second-place finish at Dover last Sunday shot him to the top of the Sprint Cup standings, 46 points ahead of Jeff Gordon. Stewart is the first driver/owner to lead the points since Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 Cup championship, a span of 556 races.

Stewart is trying to become the first owner/driver to win a race since Ricky Rudd at Martinsville in 1998.

The backup car was used in five Cup races in 2007 and 2008 when the team was known as Haas CNC Racing. Stewart used the chassis once this season in Las Vegas when he finished 26th.

Mattioli has faith in Pocono’s future

Joseph Mattioli understands that Pocono Raceway has an unusual place on the NASCAR circuit – and that’s just the way the outspoken track owner likes it.

The track’s two races will always be 500 miles long, even as drivers and critics beg for 100 miles to be sliced off each. And those names, the Pocono 500 and Pennsylvania 500, will remain traditional and eschew corporate sponsorship.

The track is a 2.5-mile triangle and boasts the longest straightaway (3,740 feet) in the series.

And with a fourth-generation of Mattiolis in line to run the raceway, Pocono will never be for sale. Not to Bruton Smith. Not anyone.

“If Bruton comes down Gasoline Alley with a wheelbarrow with a billion dollars, he wouldn’t get borscht from me,” the 84-year-old Mattioli said. “I have enough money, we don’t owe any money and all three generations are working and a fourth is waiting to start. It would be like selling part of your family.”

While Cup drivers are quick to give Mattioli respect for all he’s done to promote NASCAR in a region that serves both the Philadelphia and New York markets, they are just as fast to bash the number of miles and even the facilities. Some question why they need to return to the mountaintop twice in a season, less than two months apart and without a Chase race.

Jeff Gordon has been a vocal critic, saying last year he was “shocked” Pocono has kept two dates on the schedule. Three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says it’s hard to run a good, competitive race on the track. Johnson also wondered this weekend why Pocono refuses to back down from its tedious 500-mile run in an effort to boost TV ratings.

“From a TV viewing audience standpoint, I think the distance of the race is one avenue to look at,” Johnson said.

Mattioli remained a staunch defender of the 500-mile races and has no plans to cut back.

“How do you think my television people are going to feel? They’re going to lose a whole hour of material,” he said. “If it was something really logical why I should do it, I would do it. But not for the sake of pleasing a couple of auto racing writers.”

Mattioli is used to criticism of his track and has made improvements. The track underwent a 10-year renovation in the 1990s, adding new crash walls, a garage area and 150-site motor home park.

He had a decrepit section of track filled last season with asphalt that created a patch drivers raved about.

“I’ve always thought this was one of the best places to race that we go to on the schedule,” veteran Mark Martin said. “I’ve had a number of people disagree with that. I love it and have always loved it.”

The improvements continued this season with a new parking lot entrance and additional parking designed to ease traffic in and out of the track. Back rests were attached to the bleacher seats for extra comfort during those grueling 4-plus hour races, and Mattioli said he is always considering upgrades for both fans and the drivers.

When Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchased Kentucky Speedway last season, there was immediate speculation that Smith, SMI’s owner, had his eye on Pocono. If he bought Pocono, he could have moved one or both of its dates to any of his speedways.

Mattioli and his family quickly rebuffed Smith just like they’ve refused all other overtures through the years.

“We don’t owe any money. We’ve got a multimillion dollar reserve fund,” Mattioli said. “We have cash reserves. It’s substantial. We’re fine.”

The only time Mattioli considered selling Pocono was in the mid-70s when a CART-USAC spat led to financial trouble at the track.

Mattioli wanted to sell until he received a call from NASCAR patriarch Bill France Sr. The two met in New York and France tried to persuade Mattioli to ride out the downturn and keep the track.

France pulled out his business card and scribbled this message:

“On the plains of hesitation lie the bleached bones who when within the grasp of victory sat and waited and waiting died.”

Blown up pictures of France Sr., his business card and the note hang in the media room dining area.

Mattioli kept the track and racing in the mountains.

Richard Petty won the first NASCAR race held on the triangle – the Purolator 500 – in 1974 and a second race was added to the schedule in 1982.

It’s been years since the race had corporate sponsorship.

“I don’t need the money and if you don’t need the money, what the hell is the sense of sponsorship?” Mattioli said. “We call all the shots. All the VIP’s on race day are our people, not the sponsor’s people.”

Mattioli claimed Pocono’s Sunday race is on the brink of a sellout (believed in the 85,000-90,000 range) and credits the track’s location for its drawing power.

“We’re way past what we ever thought we would do, especially in this economy and the empty seats at all the tracks we’ve looked at,” he said. “We expected the same thing.”

Of all the traditions at Pocono, one that will stick around a bit longer is Mattioli calling the shots. Even with his grandchildren taking on an expanded role in the day-to-day operations, he has no plans to step aside.

“For what? The day I die,” Mattioli said, slapping his office desk, “that’s the day I retire.”

AP-ES-06-06-09 1529EDT

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