Stewart unfazed by delays, saves day for SHR
March 17, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Three-time series champ starts 37th, finishes fourth at Bristol
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- On a night when Tony Stewart finally looked like, well, Tony Stewart, the rest of the Stewart-Haas Racing organization wasn’t so fortunate.
A fourth-place finish in Sunday night’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway wasn’t exactly a win, but it was a step in the right direction. And in a short four-race start that has shown little progress and a bit of concern, fourth is something to build on.
Stewart, who seems to have brought all questions concerning his health to a screaming halt, didn’t look beat up, worn out or frazzled, even though he’s 23rd in points and winless in a season in which wins are practically a guaranteed ticket into NASCAR’s Chase For The Sprint Cup.
Things could be worse, and the guy who spent much of the second half of last season flat on his back nursing a broken right leg hasn’t forgotten.
Before Sunday night’s top-five finish, Stewart’s 2014 results were questionable -- to put it kindly -- finishing 35th at Daytona, 16th at Phoenix and 33rd at Las Vegas. Not the numbers one would expect from a three-time series champion.
A new crew chief (Chad Johnston), the addition of a fourth team for the Stewart-Haas Racing organization and questions, plenty of questions may have been a factor in his slow start.
Still, fourth no doubt has a nice feel to it.
“I don’t feel tired, that’s the part that feels good,” Stewart said, pausing to accept congratulations from several friends and competitors as he stood on pit road at BMS. “We had a break in the race before the we had the (rain) delay.”
Stewart headed to his motorcoach when the rain arrived for a second time Sunday, delaying the 500-lap event after only 124 laps had been run.
He ambled back, the last driver to check in as officials prepared to resume the race, and set about putting his season back on track.
He had already made a decent dent in his starting position, driving from 37th to inside the top 20, when the rain arrived. Once there, he held his ground, eventually cracking the top 10 with 50 laps remaining.
A decision not to pit allowed Stewart and a handful of others to get a good look at the front, and it helped that he had a car willing to stick around to see what all the fuss was about.
“It’s not impossible to do it, but you have got to think through your way,” Stewart said of his move through the field. “We stayed around the top 15 all day. We had a really good car, very balanced and very driveable. Chad just kept working on it all day and making it better for us.”
The fates weren’t as kind to his SHR teammates Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch.
Harvick, a winner at Phoenix, suffered his second consecutive DNF after looking as if he would once again contend for the win.
“We won’t know until we get home and look at it,” competition director Greg Zipadelli said of Harvick’s setback. Contact with something on the track, Zipadelli said, “could have pinched an oil line and ruptured it or broke it. I’m going to hope that it’s not mechanical error … we’ll do our best to look at it and figure it out.”
Harvick, whose car erupted in flames as he headed to the garage, finished 39th and fell to 21st in points.
Patrick survived brushes on the track and contact on pit road, finishing a lap down in 18th in a race that saw only 16 cars finish on the lead lap and nearly everyone endure one issue or another.
Busch was sidelined by mechanical problems, spent time getting his car repaired and returned to finish 35th. The 2004 Cup champ finished 21st at Daytona but no higher since.
It was a bit of a twist, Stewart finally turning on the jets while trouble found his teammates.
“I don’t know, it’s just so hard and we’ve been to so many different (types of) race tracks, you know what I mean?” Zipadelli said.
Thus far, the series has competed at Daytona, where restrictor-plates are required, the 1-mile layout of Phoenix, a mile-and-a-half at Las Vegas and Sunday’s first short-track stop.
“We could have had three in the top 10 it looked like at Phoenix and fuel got the 14 (of Stewart) off sequence and the 41 (of Busch) blew up. It’s just been one thing after another with something happening. We just have to make sure we’re not beating ourselves.
“It’s hard, hard to get four cars running good, but to finish good is what really matters. We’ll just keep working at it. Every weekend one or two of our cars have good speed, so that’s encouraging.
“It’s not like last year when we were just way off and didn’t have speed.”