By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
It had been a long time since Tony Stewart raced in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series — last November to be exact — but the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion competed admirably Sunday in his first start since suffering a burst fracture in his back during the offseason.
Stewart started the Toyota Owner’s 400 at Richmond International Raceway with high hopes, as everything surrounding the conditions of the race seemed to be lining up in his favor.
“This is exactly what — if I could script this, this is what I want,” Stewart said to FOX reporters before the race. “It’s a day race, my favorite track, no clouds in the sky. It’s going to get warm. that’s every piece of every variable I could ask for.”
An optimistic Stewart would roll from the grid in the 18th position, and would settle in as a top-20 car early in the event. The green-flag nature of the first half of the race, didn’t work into Stewart’s favor, as race leader Carl Edwards set a blistering pace. Around lap 140, Edwards would catch Stewart to attempt to put the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet a lap down, but Stewart wouldn’t go out without a fight. However, Edwards would eventually get around Stewart to put him a lap behind on lap 144.
“We got the lap down there. I got a lap down and almost drove back by and got my lap back,” Stewart said. “But Carl (Edwards) was strong. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hang on long, but I was going to hold on as long as I could and hope we got a caution.”
The caution wouldn’t come in time, and as a result, Stewart would spend the next 185 laps battling to get back on the lead lap.
Contact with Joey Logano on lap 260 caused the driver-side rear fender to rub on Stewart’s tire, and this is where it appeared Stewart’s day would come to a skidding halt. Eight laps after the contact, Stewart’s tire shredded apart, and he slid sideways. Skillfully, Stewart held control of his car, and was able to navigate his three-tire car back to pit road under caution without losing any more ground.
When the race restarted, Stewart would continue to try to work himself into the free-pass position to get his lap back. On lap 325 when Ryan Ellis went for a spin, Stewart was so close to being in position for the free-pass, but he was the second car one lap down. But after further review, NASCAR concluded that the first car a lap down — Ryan Blaney — had an illegal restart, which caused Stewart to receive the free-pass on lap 329 instead of Blaney.
On the ensuing restart, Stewart would slice and dice going three and four wide at times to get past the slower lapped traffic in the back of the pack in an effort to catch the other lead lap cars for position. Then came the final caution of the day at lap 358, when Brian Scott spun. This helped Stewart get caught back up to cars on the same lap as him, and when the race went back to green he worked on notching a top-20 finish.
When the checkered flag waved, Stewart was in the 19th position. Not a great result, but considering it was Stewart’s first race back from what many believed could have been a potential career-ending back injury, and also factoring in all of the obstacles he endured Sunday, it was a great finish for Stewart. Another positive about the day, is Stewart’s endurance coming off an injury.
“Line them up again and let’s run another, hell, make it 800 laps,” Stewart quipped after climbing out of his car. “Line them up and I’ll run 800 laps right now and not have a problem. There will be a bunch of these guys falling out of the seat if they had to run 800 more laps, but I will not be one of them.”
Stewart, who received a medical waiver from NASCAR this week, will now continue to try to work his way into the top-30 of the point standings. If he can accomplish that, and win a race, he will compete for the Sprint Cup Series championship in his final season.
After Richmond, Stewart sits 40th in the championship standings, and he is 101 points behind the 30th-place driver in the standings — Matt DiBenedetto. Stewart currently has to make up around six points on DiBenedetto each week to get inside the top-30 by the end of Richmond in September.
Image: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images