Tony Stewart Finishes Fourth at Martinsville, Equals Best Finish of 2014

Date:  Oct. 26, 2014

Event:  Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 (Round 33 of 36)

Series:  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Location:  Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (.526-mile oval)

Start/Finish:  4th/4th (Running, completed 500 of 500 laps)

Point Standing:  25th with 741 points

Winner:  Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet)

Rare, if ever, has Tony Stewart considered a fourth-place finish a win. But after finishing fourth in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Stewart said, “Fourth never felt so good.” The effort equaled his season-best finish of fourth earned at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in March.

For a driver with three championships and 48 career Sprint Cup victories, this seems abnormal. But the last two seasons have been far from normal for Stewart, where consistency has been hard to find and his last victory came 57 races ago at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. A new car with a new rules package, along with a new crew chief and new teammates, have injected incessant change into Stewart’s routine since he won the 2011 Sprint Cup title.

Sunday at Martinsville helped Stewart get back to his familiar front-running ways. He led twice for a total of 18 laps to bring his laps-led total at Martinsville to 1,226, third-most among all active Sprint Cup drivers. And while it was only his third top-five and seventh top-10 of 2014, it was his 11th top-five and 17th top-10 in 31 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville.

“It’s been way too long since we’ve been in this position,” said Stewart, standing against the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS as it radiated heat from running 500 laps around the .526-mile oval. “I felt like we ran solid all day. We didn’t stay in the top-five all day and we didn’t stay in the top-10 all day. We had to overcome some adversity. But I still felt like we ran our race. We were aggressive when we needed to be aggressive. We used give-and-take when we needed to use give-and-take. Some other guys paid the price for not doing that today. I felt like, all in all, we ran a decent race.”

Stewart started fourth and stayed in the top-10 for much of the day. When he did drop out, he rallied his way back in. 

Caught up in a collision between Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick on lap 228, Stewart sustained significant damage to the nose of his Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevy. Numerous pit stops to repair the damage dropped Stewart all the way to 27th, but he remained on the lead lap.

Through Stewart’s tenacious driving and savvy pit calls by crew chief Chad Johnston, Stewart put himself in position to rejoin the top-10. He stayed out when others pitted on lap 259, vaulting to third. Stewart’s worn tires eventually made him easy prey for those with fresh tires, and he steadily dropped back, but nowhere near as far as where he had been. 

Another call to stay out when others pitted placed him fifth for a lap-300 restart. For the remainder of the race, he never fell out of the top-five.

But the most crucial decision came on lap 490 when the caution came out for an accident. Stewart had 60 laps on his tires and was in fourth place. If he pitted for fresh tires, whatever grip he would gain could be for naught if all his hard-earned track position was lost. But if he stayed out and everyone else pitted, he would be a sitting duck to those with fresh tires.

Stewart and Johnston conferred over the radio and made the call to stay out. When all of their counterparts elected to come in and pit for at least right-side tires, Stewart knew his work would be cut out for him.

When the green flag waved for the final time, Stewart shot into the lead, opening up a three car-length advantage with four laps to go. But by the time the field circled the paperclip-shaped oval again, Stewart’s lead was gone. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got by, and so did his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon. Stewart was third with three laps to go. Off the final turn on the final lap, Ryan Newman nipped Stewart for third. After racing for three hours and 43 minutes and going 500 miles, Stewart finished in the same place where he started, fourth.

“If we had to do that 100 times over, we’d do the same thing. We didn’t have anything to lose. It was worth the gamble. I thought we gave ourselves the best shot to race for the win. The risk versus reward was worth it, for sure,” Stewart said.  

“Everyone on this Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats/Mobil 1 Chevy, Chad Johnston and all these guys, they did an awesome job. I just can’t thank Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Rusty Rush of Rush Truck Centers, everybody at Mobil 1, and Eric Bagdikian and his team at Code 3 Associates. Thanks, most of all, to our fans. They’ve been plowing a tough road for the last 18 months, and this top-five is for the fans more than anybody.”

While Stewart enjoyed a strong day at Martinsville, his SHR teammates did not.

Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Breast Cancer Awareness Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 34th after getting caught up in a multicar accident on lap 437 that severely damaged her right-front suspension. 

Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 36th after a ruptured oil line on lap 424 sent him to the garage area. Repairs were made and Busch returned to the racetrack, albeit 62 laps down. Prior to that, Busch led laps 314-344 and was a mainstay among the top-10. 

Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Outback Steakhouse Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 33rd after getting spun into the outside retaining wall on lap 228. His car suffered extensive damage, but the crew was able to make repairs. Harvick returned to the track and picked up eight valuable positions before the checkered flag dropped.

Harvick is representing SHR in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He is among the eight drivers of the original field of 16 who advanced to the Eliminator Round. Harvick is vying for a spot in the final elimination round, which will be determined following the Nov. 9 race at Phoenix International Raceway. Only the top-four Chase drivers in points leaving Phoenix will be eligible for the Sprint Cup championship, setting up a four-driver, one-race showdown for the title in the season finale Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick leaves Martinsville eighth in the Chase standings, 33 points behind Chase leader Gordon. 

Earnhardt’s win in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 was his 23rd career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his first at Martinsville. 

Gordon finished .344 of a second behind Earnhardt in the runner-up spot, while Newman, Stewart and Joey Logano rounded out the top-five. Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, AJ Allmendinger and David Ragan comprised the remainder of the top-10.

There were 15 caution periods for 105 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish.

The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the third to last race of the 10-race Chase – is the AAA Texas 500 on Nov. 2 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. The race begins at 3 p.m. EST, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 2 p.m.