Being away from your job, no matter your profession, for 15 weeks can make it extremely difficult to get back in the swing of things upon your return.
When your job happens to be that of a full-time driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returning to the race track after an extended absence can be even more difficult.
In the case of three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, who also had to tack on a three-month offseason to his 15 missed races before getting back into his No. 14 Chevrolet SS, the first three races of 2014 didn’t go exactly as he had hoped.
In the fourth race at Bristol Motor Speedway, however, Stewart was all smiles after finishing fourth. For the first time since breaking his leg in a sprint car accident in early August last year, he was back to his normal ways — finishing near the front of the field.
“It was something I needed, for sure,” Stewart said. “If you come out of Bristol with a top-five, you’ve had a good day. Obviously, for Chad (Johnston, crew chief) and I to work together for the first time and four races into the season be able to get a top five at Bristol — that’s pretty big for us. So it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
This Sunday in the Auto Club 400 (3 p.m. ET on FOX) at Auto Club Speedway, Stewart hopes to continue that trend and possibly end the day by celebrating in Victory Lane.
A victory this weekend in California would do a couple things for Stewart: 1. It would more than likely secure his spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup; 2. Extend his stretch of 15 consecutive seasons in the series with a win; and 3. Serve notice to his fellow competitors that he is back and gunning for a fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship trophy.
In addition to his two wins at ACS, the Columbus, Ind., driver has six top fives, 12 top 10s and an average finish of 13.9 in 22 starts. Over the last seven ACS races, Stewart finished in the top 10 five times.
Stewart’s return to competition and how he would fare wasn’t the only thing on his mind when the 2014 season began. He had to also worry about the growing pains associated with working with a new crew chief and finding that right balance in the driver-crew chief relationship that would breed success.
Johnston, who sat atop Martin Truex Jr.’s car for the past three seasons, came over during the offseason to serve as Stewart’s new crew chief, replacing Steve Addington.