Tony Stewart was a happy guy Sunday at Richmond International Raceway. The driver and team owner had missed the first eight races of the season due to a pre-season ATV accident that resulted in a broken back. After surgery and rehab Stewart was back in a racecar Sunday.
His return was announced only days prior to the Richmond race. On the very same day however, NASCAR issued a fine of $35,000 to Stewart for comments he had made earlier in the week. Stewart had criticized the sanctioning body for net enforcing a rule that requires crewmembers to put all five lug nuts on a wheel during a pit stop. Putting on fewer allows for faster pit stops.
Although no wheels have come off during a race, in several instances drivers have been forced to pit again with loose wheels. During a media event Wednesday Stewart, who has been vocal about NASCAR in the past, was critical of the practice of NASCAR not enforcing the practice of ensuing all five lug nuts are on the wheel this year. NASCAR announced the fine Thursday saying Stewart violated Section 12.8.1 of the rulebook; actions that could result in a $10,000-$50,000 fine include disparaging the sport and/or NASCAR’s leadership, or verbal abuse of a NASCAR Official, media members, fans, etc.
Sunday prior to the race, Stewart talked with FOX pre-race host Chris Myers and analysts Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip and Michael Waltrip. He was very adamant that a fine by NASCAR would not stop his comments.
“ I understand what NASCAR is trying to do, but I’m always going to speak my mind,” Stewart said. “I don’t know what the key word or key phrase was that got me fined. But when it comes to safety, I’m not going to hold back. That’s $35,000 well-invested if it makes it safer for these guys.”
“ I think they’re (NASCAR) doing something different today with rules on trying to keep everybody … making sure we get enough lug nuts on the cars,” he added. “You just don’t want to be in a position where, with 20 laps to go and you’re leading the race and you haven’t won a race and you need that to get in the Chase, to have to make a decision as a driver whether to come in or whether to ride down and hope it stays. That’s not a good position for us to be in.”
“I think some of the people at NASCAR took it the wrong way,” Stewart said. “ They’ve done an awesome job with safety and this is one thing we still need to look at. It wasn’t saying they’re not doing their job. I just felt like this is one thing they dropped the ball on. So, they’re doing a good job. They’re looking at it. They’re going to address it and make it right, and down the road, we won’t have to worry about this again, hopefully.”
Later Stewart started the race 18th. He ran as high as 14th but had issues. He struggled to find speed and went a lap down on lap 144. From there it was a fight to get back on the lead lap. On lap 269 however, Stewart spun and the fourth of eight cautions on the day came out. Stewart had made contact on a restart with Joey Logano seven laps earlier. The resulting damage cut down his right rear tire and causing his Chevy to spin. Despite the spin, Stewart was able to make up a lap and finished the day 19th.
It was a finish that might not have sit too well with Stewart in the past. But after sitting out the first eight races of the year and being part of some of the best racing Richmond has seen in recent years, Stewart was quite happy, and one thing stood out about being back in a racecar.
“How much fun I had in it (laughs),” Stewart said. “This place is so cool anyway. It’s always been my favorite race track. Like we predicted, a day race we’d be all over the race track. That’s what made it fun. The drivers got to dictate it today as far as…. You weren’t just stuck in one line. You had the ability to move around and change lines.”
“ We got in a spot there with a group of five cars racing for position once and it was fun because the five of us totally ran the track totally different,” he added. “So, it made it a lot of fun. We got the lap down there. I got a lap down and almost drove back by and got my lap back. But Carl (Edwards) was strong. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hang on long, but I was going to hold on as long as I could and hope we got a caution. It just seemed like we would get really close to being able to get that Lucky Dog spot back, and something would happen and we’d miss it by one. So, magic cautions coming out at wrong times for us. But it was fun. I had a good time and I’m looking forward to running the rest of this year with these guys.”
Carl Edwards won the Toyota Owners 400. The series now heads to its biggest track Talladega Superspeedway for next Sunday’s GEICO 500. Live coverage will be on Fox at 1:00 p.m. ET. Stewart has already said that he will start next week’s race but shortly after the start will hand driving duties over to Ty Dillon, one of the drivers who drove in relief for him this season. That of course could change given the smile on Stewart’s face after climbing from his car Sunday and being asked how he felt.
“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.”
On a side note, the Sprint Cup Drivers Council released a statement Thursday night supporting Stewart and announcing it would pay his $35,000 fine. Stewart respectfully declined their offer and will instead donate that money to a charity for Autism at Dover International Speedway next month when the Series visits.