A 19th-place finish in Sunday’s Richmond 400 isn’t the type of result three-time champion Tony Stewart would normally appreciate given his historic record of success in 17 years of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. But the performance might have been one of the most memorable drives of Stewart’s career, marking a triumph over physical injuries and time out of a racecar that few drivers could achieve.
Just 84 days after fracturing his back – an injury that initially left him struggling at times just to sit down – Stewart raced hard for 400 laps, showing little to no signs of rust as he wheeled his No. 14 Mobil 1 Advanced Fuel Economy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) around the three-quarter-mile Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
“The guys that filled in for me sure did a good job, but it feels really good to be back in this car,” Stewart told the crew on the team radio during the prerace pace laps.
The 45-year-old Stewart missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain vehicle accident. On Friday at Richmond, just one day after getting medical clearance to race, Stewart climbed into his car for the first time since November when he raced in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.
Stewart started his 34th Sprint Cup race at Richmond in 18th after rain cancelled qualifying Friday, forcing NASCAR to set the starting order based on practice speeds. The rain forced more changes to the Saturday schedule, and the Sprint Cup teams were limited to one 80-minute practice.
From the drop of the green flag Sunday it was evident Stewart suffered no ill effects from the injury. He climbed as high as 17th and battled leader Carl Edwards for 15 laps before the No. 14 fell off the lead lap on lap 145. The race ran caution free the first 157 of 400 laps.
Stewart spent the second half of the race running around 20th and battling to return to the lead lap. He moved into the free-pass position, but a cut left-rear tire on lap 268 sent the No. 14 for a spin and forced Stewart to make two unscheduled pit stops under yellow. He remained one lap down and restarted the race in 27th on lap 272. Stewart easily regained the lost spots, climbing to 24th and returning to the lead lap on lap 333.
Stewart used the final 65 laps to climb from 24th to 19th. While he wasn’t satisfied with the result, Stewart took pride in Sunday’s accomplishment.
“It didn’t feel like our first race together, mainly because just the races that we have been through together this year,” Stewart said. “I mean, I’ve been to seven of the eight races that I’ve missed. I don’t think we really missed anything. I feel like we got off to a really good start together. I don’t think there is a communication gap that we have to worry about.”
Sunday’s race was the 120th at Richmond but the track’s first scheduled day race since 1997, and its afternoon running impacted the racing. The field raced four and sometimes even five cars wide on the D-shaped oval, often sliding in the corners. Stewart, a longtime dirt-track racer, was impressed as much as any driver.
“They need to make all of these races day races here,” he said over the radio during a caution near the halfway mark. “This is a lot of fun. You go down into the corner with five cars, and every one of them is trying something different.”
In Stewart’s absence from the cockpit in 2016, his No. 14 team led by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz adapted quickly to the combination of Stewart, Ty Dillon and Brian Vickers behind the wheel of its racecar. Bugarewicz asked Stewart how he was feeling as he drove down pit lane after the race.
“Line them up again and let’s run another, hell, make it 800 laps,” Stewart said. “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.”