By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
We knew Tony Stewart wouldn’t run the full distance in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, but we also knew if Stewart was going to have any shot of making it back into the top-30 in the point standings — which is part of the requirement needed for him to be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup — then his relief driver — Ty Dillon — would have to have a good day.
Dillon delivered in a big way for the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
Dillon qualified the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, and practiced it a lot over the weekend, but Stewart got the start so he could receive the points for the No. 14 car for the day. Stewart would start at the rear of the field since Dillon was the driver who qualified his car, and he would drive conservatively so that he could make it to the first caution without any incidents.
On lap 50, while driving on the low side of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart just missed calamity. Earnhardt lost control of his No. 88 Chevrolet, and narrowly missed collecting Stewart. As Earnhardt spun back across the track the caution would come out for the first time of the day, and Stewart would pit to relinquish the seat to Dillon.
Stewart was very open about how it felt to step out of his car mid-race.
“It sucks to be honest. I know why we got to do it, but it sucks. It still sucks that you have to do it but if I hadn’t broke my back at the end of January; we wouldn’t be in this situation,” an emotional Stewart said. “Good news is this is last time we have to do it and I am back in next week. I really appreciate Ty (Dillon). He’s been a rock star through this whole thing and especially this weekend. He’s done all the heavy lifting and I just got in to ride around for 50 laps and turn it over to him.”
Although Stewart was less than pleased to hand his car over to another driver, the decision to not run the entire race actually turned out to be a smart one as several huge crashes occurred in the 188-lap event. With Stewart’s offseason back injury, a flip or 200-mile-per-hour slam into a wall wouldn’t be a very good idea.
Luckily for Dillon he was able to avoid the carnage the rest of the day. Just a few laps into his stint behind the wheel of the No. 14, Dillon had went from the back of the pack to the top-10.
“We had a really strong car,” Dillon said after the race. “Fighting from behind, it’s hard to get it up front. I felt like if we could lead a pack at any point, we would have put ourselves up front. Early one, once I first got in the car, we drove right up to into the Top 10 really quick and we had some air on the nose and was able to go.”
From there, Dillon would make a few mistakes which put him behind. However Dillon would bide his time. When the race went into the closing stages, Dillon methodically worked into the top-10. As cars were spinning and crashing coming to the finish line, Dillon found himself in sixth-place. An impressive finish for a rookie driver, who had to climb into a car with the race already underway.
“The team built an awesome race car. I just kind of got mired back. I made some mistakes being my first time here racing. But we were able to dodge crashes and survive here, which is the big thing,” Dillon said.
In finishing sixth, Dillon helped Stewart move from 40th to 38th in the 2016 Sprint Cup Series driver standings. Stewart now sits just 71 points behind Matt DiBenedetto for the incredibly important 30th-place rank in the standings. If Stewart can work his way into the top-30 of the point standings, and also win a race between now and the end of the race in Richmond in September, he will race for a championship in his final season.
He has a long way to go, but Stewart is in a much better position to get back in contention thanks in part to help from a rookie driver.
Image: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images