NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart (14) during the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday. (USA TODAY Sports: Andrew Weber)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Tony Stewart isn’t generally one to celebrate moral victories, but the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion enjoyed one Sunday after finishing fourth at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“It feels like a win, even though it’s not,” Stewart said. “I’m really excited. We had a long way to go from Friday and every day got better and better.
“Come to Bristol and run 500 laps here and (record) a top five, that is just what the doctor ordered.”
Stewart’s previous finishes this season had been 35th, 16th and 33rd, relegating him to 27th in series points prior to the race.
With 500 laps, not to mention more than five hours of waiting due to rain, Sunday was a long day for any driver let alone one recovering from multiple leg surgeries.
“I feel great,” said Stewart after climbing from his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet. “Let’s do it again. This is a physical place. If you look at the lap times, we were running mid-15 seconds around here all day. It is no walk in the park, by any means.”
EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said he would have considered turning Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards out of his way if he could have gotten that close on the final lap.
“I was thinking I would use the bumper if the opportunity was there,” said Stenhouse, whose second-place finish was the best of his career in Sprint Cup. “If you get the win, you’re in the Chase and you can let the rest take care of itself later.”
Team owner Jack Roush said he would be “disappointed” if Stenhouse thought any other way.
“When it comes to really charge for the checkered flag, there are no team orders,” Roush said. “There are no rules. I expect them to race one another as they expect to be raced. I expect Ricky, as a fierce a competitor as there is out there, (to) bump and run and take the prize if he could.”
Edwards said he wouldn’t have been surprised, given the importance of posting a win to qualify for the Chase.
“I know what Ricky was thinking and it was going to be a battle,” Edwards said. “The way I envisioned it, probably neither one of us would make it back to the start-finish line. Ricky was being aggressive all night. I was fully prepared for smashing into each other, bouncing off the walls. That’s where we’re at right now. You’ve got to go for the win.”
JOHNSON’S TRYING NIGHT
As painful as it was for most drivers to sit through the 3-hour, 19-minute early-race rain delay, the interruption was excruciating for Jimmie Johnson, who finished 19th.
Johnson had been battling Matt Kenseth for the lead in the Food City 500 when a right front tire failure dropped him to 39th place, two laps down.
Johnson took the lead during the competition caution on Lap 52 when his team took left-side tires only to gain track position. During the rain delay, he also took exception to the notion that the strategy had backfired.
“It didn’t wear out,” said Johnson, who at that point had led a race-high 44 laps. “Something made it come apart. I don’t know if we clipped something on the track that kind of scored the tread and then it unraveled as if something else happened with the tire.”
But Goodyear spokesman Rick Heinrich said the tire was, indeed, a victim of wear.
“The 48 decided to take a pass on changing right sides and changed left sides only during the competition caution,” Heinrich told FOX Sports. “What happens is you wear through the tread rubber (and) beneath the rubber is fabric. That fabric started to come unwound.”
NO HISTORY FOR JUNIOR
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was bidding to become only the second driver to begin a NASCAR Sprint Cup season with four consecutive first- or second-place finishes. Richard Petty did it in 1974.
Starting 14th and finishing 24th, Earnhardt was never in serious contention after developing handling problems midway through the race. He dropped all the way to 33rd when his team raised his hood in the pits on Lap 338.
WITHOUT PLAN B
Edwards said he thought twice about doing his celebratory backflip due to the slippery conditions Sunday night.
“I thought, ‘This is stupid. I shouldn’t do this,’” he said. “I stopped right on the start-finish line and (the track) was awfully glossy. That’s why I kind of landed on my hands. I didn’t want to stick it perfectly and have my feet go that way and break my arm on the concrete.
“But at that point, you just say, ‘What the heck.’ I don’t have a back-up celebration. Guess I’ve got to work on that, huh?”