Fellow drivers delighted to have Stewart back on track

Tony Stewart stands in the garage area prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series TOYOTA OWNERS 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 22, 2016 in Richmond, Virginia.

Tony Stewart stands in the garage area prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series TOYOTA OWNERS 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 22, 2016 in Richmond, Virginia.

RICHMOND, Va. – For the first time this season, the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was the driver who was supposed to be behind the wheel.

Returning sooner than expected from a burst fracture to his L1 vertebra suffered during an offseason all-terrain vehicle accident, Tony Stewart took to the track during opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice on Friday at Richmond International Raceway, preparing for his first competition of the season in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (1 p.m. ET on FOX).

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was 18th quickest in the session with a lap at 124.700 mph, and his presence had an energizing effect on those readying to race against him in Stewart’s final season in the series.

“Well, it’s great to have our team owner and our lead driver back in the car,” said SHR teammate Kurt Busch. “To have an injury outside of racing, it’s always tough to go through, especially with Stewart in a retirement type of mentality the way that his emotions were going into this season. It’s great to see him recover as quickly as he did, to push through the rehab side of it to get back to the car.

“This is his retirement year. He’s supposed to enjoy it. He wants to go out there and do well. I think Richmond is a perfect track for the body to come back to a race, because of the lower demands physically on the body, because there’s not a lot of banking here. There’s not a lot of G-Force, and you have to get up on the wheel and turn the wheel, but he will be able to settle in.”

Denny Hamlin also wished his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate well.

“I know it’s all special memories for us to be able to go out there and compete with him,” Hamlin said. “I know me coming into the Cup Series and being a teammate of his in my rookie season was awesome, but our relationship has grown so much further now that we’re not teammates.

“It’s a great season – would love to see him make a Chase push, if he can, and end on a good note.”

As was the case with Kyle Busch last year, Stewart can make the Chase if he wins a race and finishes in the top 30 in the standings after the 26-race regular season.

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