Season Review: Tony Stewart

December 6, 2016 | Professional Writing

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The year started with Stewart on the sidelines due to a back injury sustained in an off-road all-terrain vehicle accident and ended as part of the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

While vacationing on the west coast in late January, Stewart’s ATV went airborne and landed hard, causing an L1 vertebra fracture. Following rehabilitation, he returned to competition at Richmond International Raceway in April to embark on his final full-time season at NASCAR’s top level.

“As soon as the doctors said they were happy with my scans, I wasn’t going to wait any longer to get back in my racecar,” Stewart said. “I wanted to make the most of my last season in Sprint Cup and I had been on the sidelines long enough.”

Stewart’s return, and first start with new crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, resulted in a 19th-place finish and was followed by a sixth-place effort the following week at Talladega Superspeedway, with relief driver Ty Dillon assisting.

Following a string of races where Stewart showed flashes of speed but settled for disappointing finishes, he finally returned to the top 10 with a seventh-place effort at Michigan International  Speedway in June.

“That’s the type of weekend I was waiting for, proof that we can do the job,” Stewart said at the time. “I’d rather have this than win a race and run 15th, 20th the next week.”

If seventh was satisfactory at the time, the following race two weeks later would be enough to put him over the top.

A confident Stewart went to Sonoma Raceway and took home the 49th win of his career – the first since Dover in 2013 – and his third victory on the California road course. Stewart’s team used pit strategy to take the lead with 22 laps remaining in the 110-lap race and held off a charge from Denny Hamlin on the last lap.

“I’m excited for this team,” Stewart said in Victory Lane. “My guys have been through this whole disastrous roller coaster the last three or four years and never backed down. They’ve never quit on me. I’m proud for them and it meant more for me to get it for them than for myself.”

The win would guarantee Stewart a spot in the Chase, assuming he could make and stay in the top 30 in points. Following Sonoma, Stewart found himself nine points below the cutoff entering the second half of the year.

After a 26th-place effort the following week at Daytona International Speedway, Stewart would go on to finish in the top five in four of the next five races. His five top-five finishes accrued during the summer accounted were the most for Stewart in one season since 2013.

Stewart would make the top 30 in points and stay there to qualify for the Chase and then entered NASCAR’s “playoffs” with an optimistic swagger not seen from the Indiana native in several years.

“I’m going to race this Chase the way I know I need to race it and win,” Stewart said prior to the post-season opener at Chicagoland Speedway in September. “To win a championship, you have to be smart enough to know when and when not to push. There’ll be plenty of both of those moments in the next 10 weeks when you have to exercise that.”

Stewart finished 16th at Chicagoland and followed with a 23rd-place finish the next week in New Hampshire. Those two finishes, combined with a 13th-place effort in the Round of 16 cutoff race at Dover, would not be enough to propel Stewart into the Round of 12, ending his championship hopes.

“We gave it 110 percent,” Stewart said following the race at Dover. “We’ve had a really good year and we won’t let this get us down.”

Stewart would go on to score one more top-10 finish over the final seven races, ninth place in Charlotte. After more disappointing finishes in October and November, Stewart’s final scheduled start at Homestead-Miami Speedway resulted in a 22nd-place finish, leaving him 15th in the final standings.

“People I haven’t talked to for a long time reached out. It’s been pretty cool,” Stewart said following his career finale. “The great thing is that I’m not going anywhere. It’s not really a huge change because 90 percent of the stuff that I’m already doing I’m still going to continue to do.”

As Stewart prepares to transition from a full-time Cup Series driver to team owner, he looks at things from a first-half to second-half perspective.

“I look at it like it’s halftime of the ballgame,” he said. “This is the end of the first half and next season, we start the second half.”

Stewart finishes his career with 618 starts, 15 poles, 49 wins, 187 top-five finishes and 308 top-10 finishes. His career includes two wins in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis (2005 and 2007) and three championships (2002, 2005 and 2011.)

And while his NASCAR driving career may be over, Stewart has said he will drive in other forms of racing – as well as owning a sprint-car team, the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions for sprint cars and Eldora Speedway in Ohio.

For being retired, Stewart will have plenty to keep himself busy with going forward.

“I’m excited about finishing this chapter,” he said, “but I’m really excited about starting the next one.”

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