In his final year as a NASCAR driver and on the night he made his 600th career Cup start, the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team asked the three-time champion to use every bit of his driving talent to stretch fuel mileage on the final green-flag stint.
The strategy enabled Stewart to move from 12th place with 60 laps to go to fifth place on the final lap.
“I’d love to know how much fuel we have left in our car,” laughed Stewart as he talked with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz about the closing laps.
The fifth-place finish keeps Stewart 30th in the driver standings, but he now owns a 31-point lead over 31st-place Brian Scott. If Stewart can remain in the top-30 through the 26th race of the season, he will secure his spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff by virtue of his June victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway.
Stewart started 22nd Saturday after rain cancelled qualifying on Friday and NASCAR set the starting order based on points. New pavement made racing treacherous in the early going with several drivers hitting the wall, and it limited the side-by-side racing normally witnessed at Kentucky. Seven cautions in the first 100 laps slowed the field. Despite the carnage, Stewart used a pair of two-tire stops and good driving in the early going to climb as high as ninth as he dodged several accidents on the 1.5-mile oval.
“I’m just doing everything I can to survive,” Stewart told the crew during the middle of the race, referring to all the accidents on the track.
Stewart fell to midpack after a four-tire stop in the middle of the race and could never catch the cautions that would enable him to do a two-tire stop and regain track position. He raced in 12th with 60 laps remaining, knowing if he saved fuel he could make it to the end of the race while many of the leaders ahead of him needed to pit.
Stewart slowed earlier in the corners to conserve fuel, and he hoped the race would run caution free. He fell to 14th with 40 laps to go and remained there until the final 10 laps when the leaders began peeling off the track to pit. Stewart moved to eighth with six to go and seventh with three to go before claiming fifth on the final lap.
Kentucky and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway are the only tracks remaining on Stewart’s winless list. Until Saturday night, Stewart had not enjoyed much success at the Kentucky track, which is about 90 minutes from his Columbus, Indiana, home. In five starts, he had only led one lap at the track and had not posted a top-10 finish.
That did not stop the Kentucky crowd from giving Stewart the largest cheer during driver introductions – especially when former University of Kentucky basketball stars Jack Givens and Kyle Macy and legendary coach Joe B. Hall presented Stewart with a No. 14 Kentucky basketball jersey.
After the race, Stewart said the Kentucky repave will pay dividends when the Sprint Cup Series returns next year.
“Like every other repave, as they get laps and more races on this track it will get to where they can come off the hardness of the tire, and it will be better for everybody. This is as bad as it’s going to get. It will get better from here.”
Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevrolet SS, led the four-car SHR contingent Saturday night.
Busch started from the rear of the field after crashing his primary racecar in practice Friday afternoon. Using his backup car, Busch methodically worked his way to the front and led once for 10 laps en route to his sixth top-five and 15th top-10 finish this season and first top-five and fourth top-10 in six career Sprint Cup starts at Kentucky.
Kevin Harvick, driving the No. 4 Busch Light Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished ninth. He led five times for a race-high 128 laps but had to make a late-race fuel stop. It was Harvick’s 14th top-10 this season and fourth top-10 in six career Sprint Cup starts at Kentucky.
Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 Nature’s Bakery Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 17th.
Brad Keselowski won the Kentucky 400 to score his fourth victory of the season, his third at Kentucky and the 21st of his career.
Carl Edwards finished .175 of a second behind Keselowski in the runner-up spot, while Ryan Newman, Busch and Stewart rounded out the top-five. Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 11 caution periods for 53 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 267-lap race. The 11 cautions tied the track record, set last year.
With round 18 of 36 complete, Harvick leads SHR and the series in the championship standings. He is first with 599 points, four ahead of second-place Keselowski. Busch remained in third with 583 points, 16 behind leader Harvick.
Harvick earned a spot in the Chase via his win March 13 at Phoenix International Raceway, and Busch secured his position via his win June 6 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. Patrick is 24th with 327 points, 110 ahead of 31st-place Scott. Like Stewart, if Patrick can win a race and finish among the top-30 in points following the 26th race of the season, she will earn a Chase berth.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the New Hampshire 301 on Sunday, July 17, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. NBCSN will broadcast the race starting at 1:30 p.m. EDT.