Tony Stewart’s elimination from the Chase after the Sunday’s Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway confirmed that the veteran’s incredible 2011 title run will be his last.
But yet, after the way Stewart’s last few seasons have gone, 2016 should still be looked upon fondly once the checkered flag waves at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stewart’s early exit from his first (and only) experience in the modern, elimination-style Chase implemented by NASCAR in 2014 comes with a bittersweet taste for the Hoosier’s fanbase for a litany of reasons.
First, there’s the fact that it comes just one year after the incredible swan song for Jeff Gordon that saw the veteran make his first Championship 4.
Perhaps the worst part of the elimination, however, is that Stewart looked like a bona fide contender for a stretch during the summer.
Starting with a seventh-place run at Michigan International Speedway in June, Stewart began a spree of strong performances that resulted in a win at Sonoma Raceway, four top 5s and six finishes of 11th or better in a span of eight races.
Stewart, or “Smoke” as he’s known to fans and competitors, followed the hot streak by backpedalling into the Chase with four finishes outside of the top 20, but there was hope that he could turn things around.
Unfortunately for Stewart, that wasn’t the case.
Runs of 16th and 23rd at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway left Stewart on the outside looking in going into Dover, and Sunday’s 13th-place run did little to remedy the issue.
In the end, Stewart’s No. 14 team regressed at the worst possible time, and it ultimately led to the team’s elimination from the Chase.
Still, Stewart left Delaware proud of his team’s effort.
“I’m pretty excited about our day,” Stewart said. “We were much better than we were yesterday. Really proud of our team. We kept making it better all day. That is good as we had.”
In the end, fans should leave 2016 proud of the No. 14 team’s effort, too.
Expectations weren’t high for Stewart entering the year, and rightfully so.
The three-time NSCS champion entered the season following the worst year of his career in 2015 – a dreadful season that conceded only three top 10s and an average finish of 24.8.
The seasons before 2015? Well, let’s just say they weren’t pretty, either.
2013 marked the first year with the Gen-6 body, and Stewart was able to manage the new car well enough for a victory at Dover, but an injury in a sprint car accident during the summer stretch left Stewart out of the car after 21 races.
Stewart returned in 2014, but the season was marred by the infamous accident at Canandaigua Speedway that left him out of the car for three weeks and made his future uncertain.
Just five years removed from a five-win 2011 Chase that saw Stewart claim his first championship for his own Stewart-Haas Racing team, the veteran entered his final year with low expectations and a rookie crew chief in Mike Bugarevicz.
Then, there was the injury.
Stewart missed the first eight racea of 2016 after sustaining a lower back injury shortly before the season-opening Daytona 500, shortening his final season.
Given all of the above, it’s safe to say that Stewart’s return at Richmond International Raceway was met with little optimism for any sort of success.
Yet, with a rookie crew chief and limited time to accomplish it, Stewart found a way. Stewart’s five top 5s through his first 21 starts are as many as he’s earned in any season since the implementation of the Gen-6 body, and his 17.2 average finish was bested only in 2013 (16.1).
The 45-year-old claimed his first win in over three years a Sonoma, and surrounded the win with a group of solid runs that made what seemed like a fluke look like a legitimate playoff berth.
Yes, the playoff berth ultimately ended sooner than fans wanted or expected, but the fact that there was a playoff berth to begin with is something worth celebrating.
Throw in the special moments with Gordon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Kevin Harvick at Bristol Motor Speedway, and Stewart’s 2016 presents itself as a surprisingly bright finale to a career littered with a few dark moments.
2016 won’t be the first year that comes to mind for Tony Stewart’s fans. It’ll likely be 2011, if not 2002 or 2005. However, Stewart’s Sprint Cup swan song should ultimately bring more smiles than frowns, and given the tale of the veteran’s past few seasons, that’s all that can be asked.