Tony Stewart did the racing equivalent of the microphone drop Sunday as he walked off the stage at Watkins Glen International with a fifth-place finish in his 16th and final race at the New York road course.
The No. 14 Haas Automation Chevrolet driver for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) used the perfect fuel strategy and survived some wild racing in the closing laps of the Cheez-It 355k at The Glen NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
“I’m pretty happy,” said Stewart, who has scored the second-most points of any driver in the last five races, “especially since we aren’t one of the guys all torn up over there. Considering where we were in this race and where we ended up, I think we are really happy.”
Stewart started third in Sunday’s race, holding his own in the opening few laps. He stayed quiet on the radio as he dropped a position or two while he struggled with handling. On lap 11 Stewart said his car wheel-hopped going into the inner loop and was unable to make the turn. By rule Stewart was forced to come to a full stop before resuming his race. The incident dropped him to 16th.
“I just screwed up there,” Stewart told the team over the radio.
Stewart pitted under green for four tires and fuel on lap 22. He raced in 25th before a stop under caution at lap 48. The team made three stops on succeeding laps trying to top off the fuel tank and strategized on stretching its fuel mileage to the lap-90 checkered flag.
“We’ll need at least four or five laps of caution to make it to the end,” crew chief Mike Bugarewicz told Stewart – words sounding prophetic as, seconds after the field returned to racing, a multicar accident off the carousel brought out the red flag and NASCAR stopped the race. The field sat idle on the backstretch for 13 minutes as the safety workers cleaned up the track.
Once the field returned to the frontstretch under caution, most of the cars came to pit road, but Stewart remained on the track and jumped to sixth. The crew estimated he was now just two to three laps short of making it to the end of the race without pitting for fuel.
When the race resumed Stewart moved to fifth, but the field once again couldn’t make it a lap before another accident in the carousel brought out the caution. Stewart spent the final third of the race running at the front of the field, climbing as high as fourth, but also trying to save enough fuel to make it to the finish.
“I’m still working on it (saving fuel),” Stewart told the crew as he was kept updated on fuel projections. His chances of making it on fuel increased with each new caution as well as a second red flag that stopped the race for 16 minutes with just five laps remaining. Stewart restarted the four-lap shootout in ninth with no fuel worries. But that’s when the on-track fireworks began, as the leaders started bouncing off each other and other cars kicked up dirt in the corners.
Stewart persevered through the carnage and crossed the finish line in fifth.
“Buga (Bugarewicz) and my guys have done a great job all year adjusting our race strategy as the race goes on,” Stewart said. “They did it again today, and that played a huge factor in today’s finish.”
The driver isn’t too bad either.
Sunday marked Stewart’s final race at Watkins Glen as well as his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series road-course race. He exits the New York track with five wins – the most of any driver – seven top-two finishes, eight top-fives, 11 top-10s and 225 laps led in his 16 career Sprint Cup starts there. He will also go down as one of the sport’s greatest road-course racers. His success at Watkins Glen and Sonoma (Calif.) International Raceway includes eight wins, 14 top-fives and 20 top-10 finishes.
Stewart led the SHR contingent Sunday followed by Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet SS, who finished 11th. Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 Nature’s Bakery Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 21st. Patrick led once for 11 laps. She was involved in a multicar incident on lap 83 but was able to return to the race and finish on the lead lap. Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Busch Beer Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 32nd after getting caught up in the same accident on lap 83. Due to excessive damage, he was not able to return to the racetrack.