Stewart Started Race, Turned Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet Over to Dillon

Date: May 1, 2016

Event:  GEICO 500 (Round 10 of 36)

Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Location: Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (2.66-mile oval)

Start/Finish: 14th/6th (Running, 188/188 laps)

Winner: Brad Keselowski of Team Penske (Ford)

The driver tandem of Tony Stewart and Ty Dillon drove the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) to a sixth-place finish in Sunday’s 47th annual GEICO 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

Dillon took over the No. 14 from Stewart on lap 53 and drove the remainder of the race, narrowly missing three spectacular accidents on his way to the team’s best finish of the season.

“Man, that was a heck of a race,” said Dillon, who practiced the No. 14 Chevy Friday and qualified the car Saturday in preparation for his first Sprint Cup action at the 2.66-mile restrictor-plate track. “I don’t know how I missed those accidents, but we did. We had an awesome Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet today and I had a blast.” 

It was a team effort in so many ways.

Stewart held to the prerace strategy of dropping to the back of the pack and out of harm’s way when the 500-mile race began. With rain clouds threatening throughout the event, the race ran caution free, with the field pitting for routine stops around lap 40. NASCAR assessed Stewart a drive-through pit road penalty for speeding when he stopped for two tires and fuel. The penalty allowed the leaders to catch Stewart a few laps later, dropping him off the lead lap.

Disaster almost struck on lap 51 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun off turn two, nearly collecting Stewart, but the caution gave Stewart the free pass, and the No. 14 returned to the lead lap. Stewart pitted during the caution, and Dillon climbed in on lap 53 after a 77-second driver change.

Starting Stewart in the car enabled him to collect driver points in a bid to earn a berth in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs while playing it safe with his healing vertebra. The 45-year-old missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain vehicle accident. The three-time series champion returned last weekend at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway – just 84 days after the accident.

He said turning the car over the Dillon was the right strategy and the smart thing to do.

“Good news is this is the last time we have to do it, and I am back in (full-time) next week,” Stewart said. “I really appreciate Ty (Dillon). He’s been a rock star through this whole thing and especially this weekend. He’s done all the heavy lifting, and I just got in to ride around for 50 laps and turn it over to him.”

Dillon raced near the front of the field throughout his stint, running sometimes three- and four-abreast with the veteran drivers. As the race wound down, the tension level rose, finally erupting in a 21-car accident with 28 laps remaining. Dillon dove to the apron – narrowly avoiding any damage – and restarted the race in 10th with 22 laps remaining.

“I don’t know how in the world I missed getting in that,” Dillon exclaimed over the team radio.

With eight laps to go, SHR driver Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth got together in front of Dillon as he raced in 14th triggering a 12-car accident. Kenseth went airborne and Patrick slammed the inside wall. 

Dillon restarted the three-lap dash in 10th and charged to the front, once again avoiding a seven-car accident in the tri-oval as the field took the checkered flag. NASCAR credited the No. 14 with a sixth-place finish amid the melee.

Dillon, who shared replacement driving duties for Stewart with Brian Vickers, raced the No. 14 at Atlanta, Phoenix and Bristol in 2016. Sunday was his final race in the No. 14.

“I can’t thank Stewart-Haas and their organization enough for giving me the opportunity to fill in this year with Tony being out,” Dillon said. “Not only has it helped me with my career and getting better as a racecar driver, but it’s helped me show people that I can get the job done in other equipment, too, and that I can prove myself in other ways. I’m very thankful for the opportunity they have given me.  It’s helped a lot with a lot of things in my career.”

Dillon’s SHR teammate Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy Chevrolet SS, started 18th and finished eighth. It was Busch’s 16th top-10 in 31 career Sprint Cup starts at Talladega. It was also his 230th top-10 in 550 career Sprint Cup starts.

Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Busch Fishing Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 15th, while Patrick, driver of the No. 10 Nature’s Bakery Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 24th. Both Harvick and Patrick were caught up in separate incidents and made the mandatory trip to the infield care center to be evaluated. Both drivers were released and uninjured. 

Brad Keselowski won the GEICO 500 to score his 19th career Sprint Cup victory, his second of the season and his fourth at Talladega.

With the race ending under caution, Kyle Busch finished second behind Keselowski, while Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray and Chase Elliott rounded out the top-five. Stewart/Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney and Trevor Bayne comprised the remainder of the top-10.

There were 10 caution periods for 41 laps, with 12 drivers failing to finish the 188-lap race around the 2.66-mile oval.

With round 10 of 36 complete, Harvick leads SHR in the championship point standings. He is the new points leader with 351, nine ahead of second-place Kyle Busch. Kurt Busch is sixth with 312 points, 39 points out of first. Patrick is 26th with 166 points, 185 out of first. Stewart is 38th with 57 points, and currently sits 71 points behind 30th-place Matt DiBenedetto. Stewart is hoping to win a race over the course of the next 18 races and make it within the top-30 in the standings in order to earn a Chase berth in his final season.

The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Go Bowling 400 on Saturday, May 7, at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City. The race starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by FS1.