Three time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart isn’t ready to ride quietly into the sunset. One of the most popular drivers in NASCAR made the announcement last year that 2016 would be his final year behind the wheel of a NASCAR Sprint Cup car. That season got a bit shorter when in January Stewart broke his back in an ATV accident. Stewart came back in April and with a waiver from NASCAR set his sights on one more title. That chance was helped by a win at Sonoma in June.
Sunday Stewart helped his chances with a strong second place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It didn’t start out that way however. After a decent qualifying session Friday, Stewart lined up 12th on Sunday. At a track that is notoriously hard to pass on, Stewart worked for most of the day to move forward. As the laps wound down however, Stewart found himself inside the top 10 and moving forward. That forward progress was aided by several restarts in the final laps.
“I’d say the last three restarts were pretty intense,” Stewart said. “You know, this track has always kind of had a history of one lane prevailing over the others, and everybody — you’ve got two lanes wide of cars that are trying to get to one lane every restart.”
“It seemed like it took a couple laps after the restarts for the track to rubber back in, and I think it was the best tire that Goodyear has brought here that I can remember in the 18 years I’ve been here. You could race all over the racetrack today, and it didn’t seem like the aero situation was near as bad as what it has been in the past, so I was really happy with Goodyear brought.”
Those restarts helped Stewart fight his way to the front. When the dust settled Stewart found himself second.
“It was a fun race,” Stewart said. “We took a chance at the beginning and the plan was to take two on the first stop, and it really bit us. We got back to about 22nd, I think, and from then on it was just kind of fighting our way back. Nobody really took two until, I don’t know, late in the race there were guys — I guess when Denny stayed out and a bunch of guys in front of us took two tires, and the 22 and 78 and us I think were the ones on four or something like that. We were able to start picking our way through there, and that was really good.
“It was just the last three restarts were tough,” he added. “You needed to be on that outside line and hope that the guy on the inside didn’t push you up. The restarts are always, always interesting here, but if you could get through them and get through the chaos, you’ve got a shot at it.”
After his race win at Sonoma, Stewart’s performance seemed to pick up. However, Stewart said Sunday at New Hampshire that the popular race win at the California road course has had little to do with his increased performance.
“I still think we’d be picking up,” Stewart said. “You look at how we ran at Pocono until I crashed and then Michigan the following week, we picked up, and then weekend off or whatever, and then Sonoma.”
“You know, I don’t think Sonoma necessarily was an indication of why we ran good here, but it gave us a lot of confidence. It gave me a lot of confidence. It gave Mike (crew chief Mike Bugarewicz ) confidence, really picked the morale of the team up. It was kind of — everybody was kind of on edge because everybody wants this last year to be good and we want to run good in this last year, so for Mike and I to get caught up with each other, we’ve really had to work hard at it, and I think he’s done a great job, but I think Sonoma really helped kind of relax everybody and gets us in the mode of racing again and not really worrying about what we were looking like out there and why aren’t were performing. But I feel like it started before Sonoma.”
Stewart added that he had a lot to smile about after New Hampshire. And had a lot of praise for his team and his rookie crew chief.
“This weekend probably what I’m most proud of is we really weren’t that strong, I don’t think, off the truck,” he said. “I mean, we were okay, but there were guys that were three tenths faster than we were all day on Friday and even yesterday they were a solid two tenths faster than we were, and to be able to work through things — Mike spent the whole — while I went to Eldora last night for Kings Royal, Mike was working all night, so my phone would vibrate in my pocket, and it’s 11:00 at night and he’s got a question still that he wants feedback on, and that’s the stuff I like about him.”
“I mean, he’s a workaholic, and I guarantee you he watched the entire race last night. The night before the race he watches every previous race there and just kind of watches what happens.”
“For a guy that’s not been the head guy on the pit box for very long, he’s got a lot of savvy about what’s going on there. I feel like things are kind of gelling around us, and I feel like everybody is just kind of got that one — now everybody is just working, and I felt like from where we were on Friday to where we ended up today, it was a lot of momentum and a lot of gain through the weekend.”
Stewart can now focus on the next Cup race. The series heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week where Stewart will have one last shot at winning at the track he considers his home racetrack. HE will have somewhat of a distraction between now and then. The NASCAR Camping World Truck series will race at Eldora Speedway on Wednesday, a dirt track Stewart owns in Ohio. The track keeps him pretty busy but will keep him even busier this week leading up to the race at Indy.
“I think any distraction is a nice distraction from now until Friday morning,” Stewart said. “But it’s a big weekend, obviously. I’m not going to downplay it because it’s one of the most important weekends of the year for me being at home and racing in front of friends and family for the last time there. It’ll be an emotional weekend for sure, but I’ve got a plan on how I’m going to approach the weekend, and I’m just going to stick to that plan and go about our work.”
The spotlight may not be shining directly on Stewart next weekend. Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the New Hampshire race Sunday after suffering concussion-like symptoms. Should he not be medically cleared to race at Indy, Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday that Jeff Gordon will come out of retirement and race Earnhart’s car. Should that happen, Stewart will be glad that the attention is on someone else.
“Absolutely because I don’t need spotlight on me anyway,” Stewart said. “I show up to race; I’m not the profile guy. That was Rusty Wallace and Jeff and some of these other guys. Rusty thrived on it, Jeff just deserved it. I’ve never cared about that. I just want to race. I’m a race car driver. I’m a racer. I don’t care about all the hoopla. I just want to go race, and I want to have a good weekend and run well.”
Stewart is one of the only NASCAR drivers to have raced both open wheel and stock cars at Indy. That alone isn’t the reason Indy is so special to him.
“Well, it’s home,” Stewart said. “I mean, any time — my home track versus somebody else’s home track that might not have the history that Indianapolis has, it’s a big deal for us, just because of the facility, what it is and what the tradition and history of it is. You know, it means a lot. Some of the greatest race car drivers in the world, whether it was IndyCar, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, they’ve ran and won at the Brickyard, so that in itself makes it special.”
“I grew up my whole life in Indiana,” he added. “I didn’t move to Indiana. I didn’t move away from Indiana. I’m the only NASCAR driver in the Cup Series that’s from Indiana that still lives in Indiana, and I’m proud of where I was born. I’m proud to be back. I still live in the town I was raised in.
“I take a lot of pride in that. I think the state of Indiana takes a lot of pride in that, and that’s why it makes it a big weekend.”
Stewart has already been busy at his track. With Indy now looming, Stewarts week will be even busier, especially at Eldora.
“We had our Kings Royal last night with the 410 winged sprint cars, and all three nights were great, and the crowd was unbelievable last night,” Stewart said. “It absolutely baffled me how good the crowd was, and the racing was great last night. It’s the normal thing.”
“I mean, this is what’s different between pavement racing, and if these guys had to run a race on Wednesday, they don’t have to do anything to the racetrack. We have to do everything to our racetrack to get ready.”
“Like I do every year, I’m flying from here straight to Eldora,” Stewart said. “I’ll be there from tonight through Wednesday night. A lot of the stuff that we do for the racetrack side, at least from my role, is done in the middle of the night. When everybody else is either finishing at the bar or coming home from the bar, I’m still working. We’ll do what we have to. I’ve got a great staff there. I have Roger Slack and Larry Boos, and we’ve got a great track crew that is as dedicated as any to get this thing done and to get it done right, so we’ll go back there and we’ll kick butt and get after it and get ready for Tuesday and Wednesday.”
Matt Kenseth won Sunday’s race. Live coverage of the Crown Royal Presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next Sunday will be on the NBC Sports Network starting at 2:30 p.m. ET, with the green coming out just after 3:00 p.m. ET.