By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
For the past three years, Tony Stewart seemed to be a punchline of many jokes in the NASCAR circle. However, after how Stewart has performed over the last month, not many competitors who are vying to hoist this season’s Sprint Cup trophy are laughing anymore. Stewart looks focused, determined and the 45-year old driver showed his competitive spirit again in the New Hampshire 301 on Sunday.
Stewart started the day from the 12th position, and he held serve by the time the competition caution came out on lap 35.
Under this caution, Stewart and the No. 14 team opted to take only two tires, which moved the veteran driver to the sixth position for the restart. However, as the next run turned into a long green flag stretch, Stewart was gobbled up by drivers who had fresher rubber.
By lap 75, Stewart had slipped to 18th and his car had developed some handling issues. When the caution finally came back out for Chris Buescher’s spin on lap 100, Stewart came in and grabbed four fresh tires, and his crew chief Mike Bugarewicz called for a wedge adjustment for their race car.
After the race, Stewart pointed to his crew chief as being the catalyst of his good day.
“[Bugarewicz] is doing such a great job for a rookie crew chief that only has half a season he has got veteran calls and veteran moves,” Stewart explained after the race. “Really proud of him, proud of this whole team.”
After the adjustments, Stewart would work his way back into the top-15, where he would stay the rest of the afternoon.
With 60 laps left in the race, Stewart moved back into the top-10, and as chaos continued to wreak havoc on a huge chunk of front runners Stewart would work his way up through the running order.
On a restart with 24 laps to go, Stewart methodically slipped by traffic to move into the third spot. As the race came to a close Stewart pressured Joey Logano for the second position. Logano held Stewart at bay for a couple of laps, but finally the pressure became to much. With two laps to go Stewart got by the No. 22 Ford for the second spot.
Stewart would hang on for his third top-five finish over the last four races.
“I like it. The hardest part about it honestly is just the restarts. You’ve got two lanes of cars going into Turn 1 that are all fighting for one lane.” Said Stewart.
When you throw out his 28th place finisg because of a crash late in the CokeZero 400 at Daytona, Stewart has an average finish of 3.75 since Michigan five races ago.
“I like that stat,” Stewart said. “I feel like we are getting better each week now. Buga (Mike Bugarewicz, crew chief) is doing a great job on the box. You can see the confidence not only in him, but all the guys on the team. Our Chevy’s are fast right now. I feel like we are gaining on it. What we said, I don’t know when we said it, we were talking about you crawl before you walk, walk before you run, run before you jog and job before you sprint. We are definitely running right now. I feel like we are getting pretty close to this sprint at the end.”
With his latest great finish, Stewart further cements himself as a Chase competitor. After missing the first eight races of the season, Stewart was granted a health waiver. At that point he had to win — which he did at Sonoma a few weeks ago — and he had to move to the top-30 of the point standings — which he also did a couple of weeks ago. Now Stewart sits 28th in the championship standings, and he is a whopping 67 points ahead of 31st-place Brian Scott. Stewart should be a lock to make it into the Chase from here.
But now the focus moves from whether Stewart can make the Chase, to whether he can win his fourth Sprint Cup Series championship. Whether he can win another title remains to be seen, but Stewart is looking more and more like he will be one driver that everyone will have to contend with if they want to win the championship in Homestead.