SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- With the field lined up for the first of what turned out to be two overtime restarts Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart clicked his radio and made a request.
"Tell (the 88) after this is over let's go around the track one more time together," Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and driver of the organization's No. 14 Chevrolet, said.
Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and twice a winner of the The Combat Wounded Coalition 400, wanted to slow down instead of go fast, and soak in the moment with a familiar foe and friend, regardless of how his final race at IMS ended.
Jeff Gordon , driving the Hendrick Motorsports entry in relief of Dale Earnhardt Jr. , was more than willing to oblige. Hours earlier, Gordon had paid tribute to Stewart, acknowledging him and what he has meant to NASCAR during the morning drivers' meeting.
So before race winner Kyle Busch made it to Victory Lane, prior to he and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates gathering to kiss the bricks on the finish line, Stewart and Gordon, two old warhorses with a combined seven championships and 142 Sprint Cup Series wins between them, slowly circled the 2.5-mile track one final time to the cheers of the fans and many of those still on pit road.
Afterward, Gordon climbed from his car and approached Stewart; the two hugged on pit road amid a throng of reporters.
"I can say that just ranks in the top-three coolest moments of my 18 years in this series," said Stewart, who will retire from Sprint Cup racing at season's end. "To share that moment with Jeff here at Indianapolis, I don't know. I don't even have the words for it. That is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life."
For the record, Stewart finished 11th in his final Sprint Cup start at the famed Brickyard. It was a hard-fought 11th with the 45-year-old rallying from a lap down after running strong in the first half of the 170-lap race.
Gordon, scheduled to make at least one more start next week at Pocono's Pennsylvania 400 in relief of Earnhardt Jr., rallied, too, to finish 13th.
"Tony and I have gone through a lot over the years," he said. "But he and I have become really good friends. ... I'm just so proud that I was able to be here and race with him in his final race (at Indy)."
Stewart ran as high as second early, moving up from his No. 3 starting position in spite of a slow takeoff when the race went green.
Crew chief Mike Bugarewicz and the pit crew continued to make adjustments throughout the first half of the race, keeping Stewart inside the top 10, but at one point admitted to his driver, "We're just barely keeping up with the track."
Stewart hit pit road at Lap 119 under green, and when the caution came out for an incident involving David Ragan , it appeared the move might work in the team’s favor -- others that hadn't pitted would come to pit road, allowing Stewart to gain track position.
But a speeding penalty negated any advantage, and Stewart instead found himself in 31st and one lap down.
By then, it was too late to change game plans, according to Bugarewicz.
"Normally you would say yes when it's early in the race," he said. "When it's late in the race like that, your fate's almost ... you just have to race for the (free pass) and hope you get it like we did. That's all you've got.
"Nobody was going to pit again if it stayed green because they're already in the last fuel window so at that point it was just ... banking on getting a caution and being the best car out of the cars that were a lap down to get the lucky dog, which is what we did.
"We got fortunate with a few more cautions to let us line back up at the tail of the field and start picking them off."
On Lap 140, Stewart passed Kasey Kahne (Hendrick Motorsports) to be in positon for the free pass, and when the caution flag waved for debris moments later, he was back on the lead lap.
Three more cautions unfolded before the finish, including one that involved Stewart, Jamie McMurray (Chip Ganassi Racing), Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing) and Brian Scott (Richard Petty Motorsports).
"That last one probably hurt us in one sense -- with the nose damage we had, the car was really tight," Bugarewicz said. "But ... we're not going to complain, we're just going to take what we've got and be happy for it."
The finish moved Stewart up one spot, to 27th, in points. With a win earlier at California's Sonoma Raceway, he continues to improve his chances at earning a berth in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
But with Indy in his rearview, Stewart wasn't in a hurry to look too far down the road.
"It was an awesome weekend," he said. "Everything went the way we wanted it to, we just came up short today.
"I had fun all day and had fun all weekend. ... Everybody tried to make my weekend as easy as possible. It really gave me the opportunity to savor the moment and enjoy it."