The questions had clearly begun to grate on Tony Stewart.
Fiesty with the media even in the best of times, the Stewart Haas Racing co-owner and former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion had grown tired of discussing his still-mending right leg; so savagely broken in an early August Sprint Car crash in Oskaloosa, Iowa. After being sidelined from the final 15 races of the 2013 season, Stewart returned with a whimper, not a roar, struggling mightily in the opening weeks of the season en route to 35th, 16th and 34th-place finishes at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas Motor Speedways.
“What’s wrong with Smoke,” wondered the garage-area railbirds. “What’s wrong with Stewart Haas Racing?”
Sunday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Stewart took an important first step on the road to answering those questions. On a track that has afforded him precious little success over the years – just one win in 30 career starts and an average finish of 17th -- Stewart’s weekend once again began poorly. An abysmal qualifying effort left him with a provisional, 37th-place starting spot, and Sunday morning, there were very few optimists dressed in Stewart’s black and orange livery.
|"It feels like a win..."|
Once the green flag flew, however, Stewart began a steady climb toward the top of the standings. His Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet improved throughout Sunday’s 500-lap event, and despite a pair of lengthy rain delays, Stewart eventually finished fourth behind winner Carl Edwards and youngsters Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Aric Almirola.
“It’s not a win, I know that,” said a relieved Stewart afterward. “But it feels like a win. I think we will take that. To come to Bristol, run 500 laps and have a Top-5 (finish), that’s just what the doctor ordered.”
Stewart was asked how the marathon grind had affected his surgically repaired leg, and for once, the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion actually seemed pleased to reply.
“I feel great,” he said. “Let’s do it again!”
Stewart’s fourth-place finish will not silence the doubters forever. It improved his standing only marginally -- to 23rd in the championship standings – and did little to calm fears that SHR has adapted poorly to NASCAR’s newest off-season rule modifications. He and teammates Kevin Harvick (39th at Bristol), Kurt Busch (35th) and Danica Patrick (18th) are still a half-step behind the competition in terms of early-season speed, and that is a problem unlikely to be solved without weeks of testing and hard work.
But for now, at least, Stewart’s strong run will keep the wolf from the door.
“To start 37th and end up fourth, I’m pretty excited about that,” said Stewart after Sunday’s race. “We had a long way to go from Friday, when we weren’t very good. Every day, we just got better and better. So, I’m really proud of this team.
“It’s a step in the right direction, for sure,” he smiled. “This is a big one. If you come out of this place with a Top-5, you’ve had a good day.”