With a rules package aimed toward giving the drivers more control of their outcomes, Tony Stewart shined for the first time in his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Michigan International Speedway.
In his seventh race since returning from a back injury at Richmond International Raceway, Stewart rode a consistent weekend to a seventh-place result in Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400, his first top-10 finish without a substitute. Ty Dillon finished sixth in Stewart’s machine at Talladega Superspeedway.
Sitting 71 points behind 30th-place David Ragan in the championship table going into the weekend, Stewart needed a strong run to make gains toward Chase eligibility. His team ultimately delivered on that hope, unloading fast and qualifying third before finishing off the weekend with a top 10.
Stewart also needs a win to make his way into the Chase, but given how the first weeks of his return had gone, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was content with a consistent weekend.
“We haven’t been running good enough to worry about just winning yet,” Stewart said. “What we needed was a day like today. From Friday to right now, we needed a solid weekend.
“We had a solid day on Friday. We had an OK day yesterday, but I’m really proud of the changes we made overnight, and then today was a solid day all day until we came out of the pits outside of the top five for the first time. Even when we were sixth before that last caution, we were catching Kevin (Harvick) and had a shot to race him for the top five again. The last restart just didn’t work out for us.”
Asked what caused the sudden improvement, Stewart was uncertain.
“I don’t know,” Stewart said. “You’ve gotta remember, I just drive the car.
“The thing is, you want to be close off the truck. You want to make good changes through the weekend, and from the time we made the first run, every time we came in and made a change I could feel the change.
The package here gives you the ability to do that. You’re not just stuck because of an aero package. I’ll take what we got.”
While happy with the result, Stewart still took time to criticize the wild restarts throughout the day. While exciting, offering three and four-wide racing, the restarts also had an element of unpredictability, one which Stewart claimed altered his day.
“The restarts were stupid,” Stewart said. “I’ve only got six months more of these stupid restarts. I mean, it’s just asinine, and you can’t blame anybody because you’ve gotta go, because as soon as you’re done with the first lap, you’re kind of stuck where you’re at.
“We had two or three of them at the beginning that didn’t work out, then we had two or three in the last half of the race that worked out, but the last one didn’t. That’s just kind of where we ended up, but we had a solid day, and that’s what we wanted.”
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