Tony Stewart had a wicked good run Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, wheeling his No. 14 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) to a second-place finish in the New Hampshire 301 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. It was Stewart’s third top-five result this season and his 15th top-five in 34 career Sprint Cup starts at New Hampshire.
Stewart made the most of three restarts that took place during the race’s final 33 laps, driving from ninth to second and finishing 1.982 seconds behind race winner Matt Kenseth.
“The last three restarts were pretty intense,” Stewart said. “This track has always kind of had a history of one lane prevailing over the others. It seemed like it took a couple laps after the restarts for the track to rubber back in, and I think it was the best tire that Goodyear has brought here that I can remember in the 18 years I’ve been here. You could race all over the racetrack today. It was a fun race.”
After starting the 301-lap race around the 1.058-mile oval in 12th, Stewart dropped all the way to 22nd upon opting for two tires instead of four during the competition caution on lap 35.
“We took a chance at the beginning and the plan was to take two (tires) on the first stop, and it really bit us,” Stewart said. “We got back to about 22nd, and from then on it was just kind of fighting our way back. Nobody really took two (tires) until late in the race. Denny (Hamlin) stayed out and a bunch of guys in front of us took two tires, and the 22 (Joey Logano) and the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and us were the ones on four (tires). We were able to start picking our way through there, and that was really good.”
Stewart has finished seventh or better in four of his last five Sprint Cup races, which includes a win June 26 at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway.
“I feel like we are getting better each week now,” Stewart said. “Buga (Mike Bugarewicz, crew chief) is doing a great job on the box. You can see the confidence not only in him, but in all the guys on the team. Our Chevys are fast right now.”
Stewart missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a back injury in late January that kept him out of the racecar. New Hampshire marked his 11th race behind the wheel of his signature No. 14 Chevrolet and his 11th race with Bugarewicz, who is in his first year as a crew chief.
“When I came back, I talked about how we had to crawl before we could walk, walk before we could run and run before we could sprint. We’re definitely running right now, and I feel like we’re getting pretty close to this sprint at the end,” Stewart said.
The victory at Sonoma earned Stewart a spot in the 16-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, provided he could break into and then stay among the top-30 in points. His results of late have not only placed him among the top-30, but given him a solid 67-point buffer over 31st-place Brian Scott. Seven races remain before the Chase begins Sept. 18 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
“Sonoma gave us a lot of confidence. It gave me a lot of confidence. It gave Mike (Bugarewicz) confidence. It really picked the morale of the team up,” said Stewart, who is competing in his last Sprint Cup season. He plans to retire following the season finale Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Everybody was kind of on edge because everybody wants this last year to be good, and we want to run good in this last year. So for Mike and me to get caught up with each other, we’ve really had to work hard at it, and I think he’s done a great job. But I think Sonoma really helped kind of relax everybody and it got us all in the mode of racing again.
“I’m really proud of what we accomplished this weekend. We really weren’t that strong off the truck. I mean, we were OK, but there were guys who were three-tenths faster than we were all day on Friday, and even yesterday they were a solid two-tenths faster than we were. But we were able to work through those things.
“Mike worked all night. My phone would vibrate in my pocket and it’s 11 at night and he’s got a question that he wants some feedback on. That’s the stuff I like about him. For a guy that’s not been the head guy on the pit box for very long, he’s got a lot of savvy. I feel like things are kind of gelling around us, and I felt like from where we were on Friday to where we ended up today, it was a lot of momentum and a lot of gain through the weekend.”