The 22nd annual Jeff Kyle Brickyard 400 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway started strong for native son Tony Stewart, and it stayed strong for much of the 164-lap race around the 2.5-mile oval. But after qualifying fourth on Saturday and running as high as second in the race on Sunday, a bid to stay out on race-worn tires with less than 40 laps remaining upended Stewart’s strategy and left him with a 28th-place finish.
It was a bitter outcome on what was shaping up to be a welcome homecoming for Stewart, who grew up 45 minutes away from the track in the towns of Columbus and Rushville, Indiana.
Stewart drove his No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS to the provisional pole in the first of two rounds of knockout qualifying on Saturday. His fast lap advanced him to the final round of qualifying, where he posted the fourth-quickest lap to place him on the outside of the second row for the Brickyard 400.
The race started well and Stewart held his own among the top-five despite his racecar being tight in the center of the track’s corners and loose off. Crew chief Chad Johnston continued to adjust the car’s handling, eventually finding a balance that made the car’s exit off the corners palatable.
When the race’s first caution flag waved on lap 46, Stewart took advantage and pitted for four tires and fuel. Others, however, either stayed out on the racetrack or pitted for only two tires. The differing strategies left Stewart 12th for the lap-50 restart.
Eventually, the drivers who chose to stay out were forced to pit, and those who took only two tires were soon overmatched by the grip of Stewart’s Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevy which rode on four fresh Goodyears.
By lap 62, Stewart was running second behind his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) teammate Kevin Harvick, whose No. 4 Jimmy John’s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS wound up leading four times for a race-high 75 laps.
Stewart stayed second for nearly 20 laps before those who had pitted earlier began reeling him in thanks to their new tires. But Stewart remained strong, dropping only to sixth as lap 100 clicked off the board.
When the caution flag flew again on lap 108, Stewart hit pit road for four tires and fuel. Again, other drivers stayed out and others took only right-side tires. Nonetheless, Stewart was the first driver off pit road with four new tires, which placed him 15th for the lap-112 restart.
When the caution flag was displayed on lap 121, Stewart stayed out and leapfrogged to third place. He earned track position, but he would have to hold onto it with tires that had nine green-flag laps on them. Stewart knew it would be a challenge, but if he could hold his ground for just two or three laps and get out in clean air, his Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevy could rattle off the kind of laps that put it on the provisional pole Saturday.
When the green flag dropped on lap 125, Stewart’s old tires proved to be no match for those around him on fresher rubber. He lost 10 spots on the first lap.
As another caution slowed the racing action on lap 142, Stewart acknowledged his strategy hadn’t worked the way he envisioned. The only call that could be made was made – pit for four tires and fuel.
That stop, however, left Stewart 25th as he was behind the drivers who stayed out and behind the drivers who pitted for only two tires. It proved to be a hurdle too tall to overcome.
By being near the tail-end of the lead lap cars, Stewart had nothing to lose when more cautions came out. Having already been beaten when he was on old tires, new tires would be the only way he would have a fighting chance of using the restarts to gain track position.
Unfortunately, not even that strategy worked, as the jockeying in the final 10 laps amid three restarts left Stewart 28th when the checkered flag dropped.After vying for the win late in the race, Harvick wound up third. It was his fifth top-five in 15 career Sprint Cup starts at Indianapolis and his 14th top-five this season.