Stewart brings historic lead to Pocono Raceway

Published 10:09 pm Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing team arrive at Pocono Raceway this Sunday with a history-making NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point lead.

Stewart is the first owner-driver in the series to lead the series championship standings in 17 years. The last time an owner-driver led the series points was on November 15, 1992, when Alan Kulwicki won the series championship over Bill Elliott.

“Everybody respected Alan because he was an owner-driver and what he was able to accomplish,” Stewart said. “It was a little bit before I was really a die-hard NASCAR guy.”

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Stewart was a 21-year-old focused on his USAC Sprint Car and Midget career when Kulwicki won the 1992 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

“You know, you go through a time and you’re able to go back and look at how the history of the sport has evolved and what milestones and moments shaped the sport to what it is,” Stewart said. “So it’s a pretty cool moment to have your organization mentioned with his organization.”

No. 48 returning to dominance?

With their second win of the season in the rear-view mirror and a pick-up of two positions in the series championship standings, Jimmie Johnson is ready for the Pocono 500 this Sunday.

The three-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion is third in the series standings and amid some serious momentum building, is mounting a charge at what would be an unprecedented fourth consecutive championship in NASCAR’s premier series.

Johnson swept both Pocono events in the 2004 season. In the 2008 Pocono 500, Johnson started second and finished sixth.

Mattioli family makes Pocono a unique speedway

Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania is unique to NASCAR in many ways. It is the only track of its shape – the “Tricky Triangle” they call it.

At Pocono’s helm is Dr. Joseph R. “Doc” Mattioli, who along with his wife, Dr. Rose C. Mattioli, built, struggled and ultimately flourished at the 2.5-mile triangularly-shaped oval. Doc Mattioli is a congenial, energetic man, proud of Pocono’s long path to success, and even more proud of his family.

Pocono Raceway has a special feel to it for more than just competitive racing. Three generations of the Mattioli family are involved with operating the track, and a fourth generation is coming up from the cradle.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to the track for the 63rd time in Sunday’s Pocono 500, continuing a relationship that dates back to the first race in 1974.

Pocono Raceway had a difficult time in its early years. The Pocono NASCAR race was one of the first ventures outside its traditional southeastern base. USAC Indy Car racing had been Pocono’s marquee event when the track opened in 1971. By the mid-1970s, however, Mattioli’s race track was suffering financially due to ongoing repairs of original construction and he began contemplating its sale.

Bill France Sr. didn’t want Mattioli to throw in the towel.

“My son Joe and I flew to New York to meet Bill to talk about it,” Mattioli said. “We argued about it, but he was a dear friend, too. He took out one of his business cards and wrote this on the back of it: ‘On the plains of hesitation lie the bleached bones of millions who when within grasp of victory sat and waited and waiting died.’ He wanted us to stay the course, and he convinced us to stay with it, and I still carry that card with me. Bill and his wife Anne B. came to Pocono and helped us the first few years. I still think of them every time I look at our grandstands on race day.”

Grandsons Brandon and Nick Igdalsky serve as the track’s president and senior vicep. Granddaughter Ashley Igdalsky is a vice president and is in charge of construction. Grandson Chase Mattioli is a vice president.

Reflecting on his 84th birthday in April, Mattioli recalls being raised in a house with no electricity or plumbing, going to a two-room schoolhouse and growing or raising all the food the family ate; of serving in the Marine Corps in World War II; benefiting from the G.I. Bill to be educated to become a dentist; running away with wife Rose to be married more than 60 years ago; to being founder and CEO of Pocono Raceway What in his lifetime makes him most proud?

“My family,” he says in an instant. “We have a wonderful relationship, we all live here and everybody is involved with the track. When you have a family like that, you appreciate them.”

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Point Standings

Driver Points

1. Tony Stewart 1,853

2. Jeff Gordon 1,807

3. Jimmie Johnson 1,789

4. Kurt Busch 1,762

5. Ryan Newman 1,680

6. Kyle Busch 1,634

7. Denny Hamlin 1,630

8. Matt Kenseth 1,625

9. Greg Biffle 1,618

10. Jeff Burton 1,587

11. Carl Edwards 1,582

12. Mark Martin 1,567