Even though 2016 is his final NASCAR season, don’t think for a minute that Tony Stewart is doing anything but driving as hard as he ever has in his 18 years of full-time Sprint Cup racing, as evidenced in how he battled Sunday afternoon on the restarts at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
The driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) used a fast car and some great moves during those chaotic restarts to finish seventh in the FireKeepers Casino 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
“That’s the type of weekend I have been waiting for,” Stewart said, referring to his third-place qualifying effort Friday backed up by a strong run Sunday. “Today is proof that we can do it. I would rather have this than win a race and run 15th, 20th the next week. From start to finish all weekend it’s been solid, and that is what we are looking for right now. I’m tickled to death.”
Sunday’s performance was by far the best of the year for the team led by Stewart and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. The No. 14 raced in the top-five for most of the 200-lap event on the 2-mile, D-shaped oval in the Irish Hills region of Michigan. While it wasn’t as good a finish as May’s sixth-place effort at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway earned by substitute driver Ty Dillon and Stewart, Sunday’s seventh-place run was impressive throughout.
The Michigan race saw NASCAR introduce a new rules package that reduced downforce and sideforce stabilization, placing an emphasis on handling plus driver skill and input. It created frenetic, three- and sometimes four-abreast racing on restarts, which saw Stewart dice with the leaders, often in hair-raising fashion.
“These restarts are nuts,” said Stewart, who stressed after the race that he enjoyed the new rules package. “I love it. I absolutely love it. The package is good. The aero package is starting to catch up now. The whole equation to this to make it all where everybody wants it to be are tires and aero. Up to this point Goodyear has been way ahead of NASCAR. NASCAR is finally catching up. So now we are getting the split between the two groups closed up.”
Stewart said he believes that as teams have more time with the rules package, the racing will be even better.
“I don’t know what everybody else is going to say, but I thought it was pretty good,” he said. “It may not be perfect yet, but it is more than definitely going in the right direction for sure.”
Stewart started third and never left the top-five for the first half of the race, with the crew needing to make only minor handling adjustments. Each time the green flag flew, a mad scramble ensued with drivers using all four lanes in the 18-degree turns. Stewart was at the front of the field throughout the day, rarely outside the top-five.
As the race drew to a close, he began reporting more handling issues and dropped to 11th with 50 laps to go. After a few more adjustments from the crew, Stewart began a charge back to the front, moving to fourth with about 30 laps remaining. A restart in the final 10 laps saw Stewart and Carl Edwards race hard, but neither had a challenge for eventual winner Joey Logano.
Sunday marked Stewart’s 302nd top-10 finish in his career and 22nd at Michigan. He wasn’t the only SHR driver to have a good day in Michigan.