By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship started with optimism for 16 drivers and teams. After Sunday’s Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway, the championship aspirations for four of those 16 have come to an abrupt end.
Tony Stewart, who is in his final season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was one of the four drivers eliminated from the 2016 Chase following the Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Stewart, who never showed the speed to contend for a win on Sunday, ended the race 13th in the championship standings, 11 points outside the top-12. But despite finishing 13th in the race, and not advancing to the next round of the Chase, Stewart was very upbeat with how much better his car was on Sunday than it was in practice on Saturday.
“I’m pretty excited about our day,” said Stewart. “We were much better than we were yesterday. Really proud of our team. We kept making it better all day. That is good as we had.”
With no championship to fight for, the final seven races will be for nothing but pride as Stewart begins his ride off into the sunset following an 18-year career at NASCAR’s highest level, but just the fact that the 45-year-old driver got this far is incredible.
Stewart’s roller-coaster season began with the ultimate punch to the gut. The veteran driver was injured just weeks before the Daytona 500 in an accident in a sand dune vehicle. Stewart sustained a severe back injury that held him out of the first eight races of the year.
When Stewart returned to the track, he struggled recording just one top-10 finish in his first six races back in the No. 14 car. Then came the Summer months.
Stewart finished seventh at Michigan in the FireKeepers Casinos 400, and it appeared he was finally regaining some momentum. One race later, Stewart pulled off the incredible.
He led 22 laps at Sonoma, but was booted out of the way by Denny Hamlin on the final lap. Stewart would not relent, and coming into the final turn of the race, he body slammed Hamlin out of the way for an intense victory. Stewart would punch his Chase ticket a week later at Daytona, as he worked his way inside the top-30 of the championship point standings.
During an eight-race stretch in the Summer, Stewart finished 11th-or-better in seven races and it looked like he was on his way to something special.
However, a championship wasn’t meant to be for Stewart.
His momentum from mid-season couldn’t be sustained and since that magical eight race stretch, he hasn’t finished inside the top-10. Even though he wont be moving on to the round of 12, Stewart put on a great show for his fans, and should be applauded for his incredible intestinal fortitude.
A gruesome back injury couldn’t stop him. Missing eight races couldn’t stop him. Stewart, a three-time series champion, battled back from more adversity than we’ve ever seen a driver have over the 2016 season en route to the Chase.