Tony Stewart made his return to racing at Richmond this weekend after recovering from a broken back that occurred late in January. After sitting out for the first eight races, Stewart showed he was ready for the competition on Sunday, climbing into the #14 Chevrolet for the 62nd Annual Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Prior to the drop of the green flag Stewart reminded his team over radio communications that Sunday represented a ‘reset button’ of sorts. Mike Bugarewicz agreed saying, ‘Now our season starts. We gave them a little bit of a head start but they’re gonna be shocked when we catch them in a hurry,” speaking of the Sprint Cup drivers vying for the Championship at the end of the year.
“This place is so cool anyway, it’s always been my favorite race track and I feel like we predicted a day race we’d be all over the race track and that’s what made it fun,” Stewart said. “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 line. We got in a sport 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, it made it a lot of fun.”
Stewart started the race in 18th position but within the first 30 lap he was running 22nd when he radioed his crew saying, ‘for what it’s worth I’m having a lot of fun.” Stewart sounded joyous over the radio at times. Stewart went down a lap when Carl Edwards passed the #14 Chevrolet on Lap 154.
“We got a lap down there and almost drove back by him and got my lap back but Carl (Edwards) was strong, I knew we weren’t going to be able to hold on long,” said Stewart. “Just trying to hold on as long as I could and hope we got a caution. Just seemed like we would get really close to being able to get that lucky dog spot back and it seemed like something would happen and we’d miss it by one.”
Stewart stayed consistent during the race steadily working his way through traffic trying to remain the first car one lap down, which in turn would guarantee him the recipient of the lucky dog. Time and again, when the yellow would come out Stewart was one position out of the free pass slot.
As Stewart was battling Joey Logano for the free pass position, Logano bumped into Stewart taking the field three-wide on a restart on Lap 258 within ten laps on Lap 268 Stewart suffered a flat tire due to the tire rub caused by the contact with Logano.
Stewart would continue one lap down as he finally captured the elusive lucky dog position with 69 laps remaining in the race. Stewart was 24th at that point but he would rally and finish the race in 19th on the lead lap.
Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, was granted a waiver from NASCAR exempting him from attempting to start every race before Richmond in order to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup field. Stewart must move into the top 30 in the points to be eligible to make the Chase field. Prior to the start of the 2016 season Stewart announced this will be his final season as a full-time Cup driver.
Stewart will qualify the #14 Chevrolet at Talladega Superspeedway next weekend for the GEICO 500; Stewart will start the race at the high-banked, fast paced 2.66 mile Superspeedway, before Ty Dillon will take over the wheel for the remainder of the race.
“We’re taking a strategic approach to my return,” Stewart released in a statement. “Richmond is a track where I feel very comfortable and because it’s a short track, the speeds are substantially less…We’ll start the Talladega race to get the points, but understanding the style of racing and the higher potential of getting involved in an incident we thought it was best to minimize the amount of time I’m in the car. I’ll return fulltime at Kansas (Speedway, the following week) and enjoy every moment I can in my final year of Sprint Cup.”