No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart closed out the 26-race NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season Saturday night with a 33rd-place finish at Richmond International Raceway, but he sits 12th among the 16 drivers who qualified for NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup that begins next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
Saturday night proved a tough Richmond farewell for Stewart, who has long called the .75-mile, D-shaped, Virginia oval his favorite track on the circuit.
“We just struggled from the start tonight,” said Stewart, who started his 35th NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond. “We made a lot of changes but couldn’t get to where we wanted to be.”
Stewart started 14th in Saturday’s race but soon reported difficulty turning in the corners and dropped outside the top-20. A pit stop went awry on lap 88 when Greg Biffle clipped Stewart as the cars came down pit lane, causing Stewart to spin sideways into his pit. Fortunately, the No. 14 suffered no damage other than dropping to 22nd.
“I know he (Biffle) didn’t mean to do that,” Stewart told the crew over the team radio.
Some nifty driving on the restart and improved handling saw Stewart jump to 12th by the 100-lap mark, but he drifted to midpack by lap 150 and soon fell off the lead lap. Only 16 of the 40 cars raced on the lead lap at the halfway point. Stewart spent the second half of the race attempting to return to the lead lap, which he did on lap 278.
With 117 laps remaining Stewart restarted the race in 29th following one of a record number of cautions. He was steadily climbing toward the front and had moved into ninth before tangling with Ryan Newman in an accident with 37 laps remaining. Stewart’s car caught fire; he safely climbed out, but his race was over.
While it wasn’t the result he wanted, Stewart will always hold Richmond in high esteem. The three-time champion’s first of 49 career victories occurred at Richmond on Sept. 11, 1999. He commemorated the victory Saturday night with a special helmet honoring his then-owner Joe Gibbs and Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). Gibbs visited Stewart on the grid before the race to sign the helmet.
Stewart finishes his Richmond career with six victories: three in Sprint Cup, two in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and one in a Late Model stock car. He posted 11 top-five finishes in Sprint Cup competition and 19 top-10s and led a total of 950 laps in his 35 career Sprint Cup starts at Richmond.
Stewart enters the Chase after an impressive regular-season comeback following an off-season injury that kept him out of the cockpit for the first eight races. After returning to the car, Stewart posted five top-5s and seven top-10s. His victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway on June 26 earned the Chase berth.