The revamped Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, where the banking in the upper groove of the racetrack was reduced to the same degree as the middle of the track surface, gave the .533-mile concrete bullring its luster of yesteryear with plenty of bent sheet metal that left plenty of drivers bent with one another.
Count Tony Stewart among them, as the driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) finished 27th in the Irwin Tools Night Race after tangling with Matt Kenseth for the lead on lap 333.
Stewart was none too pleased with Kenseth’s driving tactics, and the 14-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran showed his displeasure to Kenseth when after climbing from his battered racecar, he threw his helmet at Kenseth. Stewart was as precise with his throw as he was with his words afterward, as the helmet struck Kenseth’s Ford square in the nose.
“I checked-up twice to not run over him, and I learned my lesson there,” said Stewart of Kenseth. “I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from now ‘til the end of the year – every chance I’ve got.
“We ran on the restart faster than him each lap, so we just learned our lesson that next time – just drive through him, not even be patient by him. We’re not going to give him that chance again.”
The helmet toss was retro Stewart, as the three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion was combustible in his early years on the circuit. However, experience and team ownership, as Stewart is a driver-owner at SHR, mellowed him in recent years. Nonetheless, the dustup with Kenseth, where Stewart was vying for the win, left him seething over what might’ve been.
That Stewart was even in contention for the win was amazing. He went a lap down to leader Joey Logano on lap 74 with a racecar that plowed through the track’s high-banked corners. Stewart dropped to as low as 34th in the 43-car field, but smart chassis adjustments by crew chief Steve Addington brought the Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy around.
When the caution came out on lap 149, Stewart earned his lap back. With further chassis adjustments, Stewart climbed the leaderboard, cracking the top-10 on lap 270.
When the caution came out again on lap 323, Addington kept Stewart out on the track to gain valuable track position. It worked, as Stewart lined up second to leader Kenseth for the restart on lap 329.
“We weren’t that great of a race car,” Stewart said, “but we were definitely faster than that after that restart.”
Stewart doggedly pursued Kenseth, edging ahead of the 2004 Sprint Cup champion before the two drivers slapped doors coming off turn four and spun into the retaining wall separating the track from pit road.
Stewart’s car wouldn’t restart and he climbed from it, scanning the track for Kenseth. When Stewart found Kenseth and his No. 17 Ford ambling down pit road, Stewart the southpaw unleashed his helmet, and as it caromed off the nose of Kenseth’s car, the crowd roared in approval.
After his mandatory evaluation inside the infield care center, Stewart returned to his Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy and completed the remainder of the race, avoiding a dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish).
Stewart’s SHR counterparts were not so lucky.
Danica Patrick, who is driving the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing via a collaborative agreement with SHR, finished 29th after an accident with Regan Smith on lap 434 damaged her car too extensively to continue.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Outback Steakhouse Chevrolet for SHR, finished 36th after being involved in an accident with Juan Pablo Montoya on lap 189. Newman’s car suffered heavy damage and was unable to continue. The finish also dropped him out of the wild-card spot for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with two races to go before the Chase begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
Only the top-10 in points are locked into the 12-driver, 10-race Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. In the event of multiple drivers having the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Kasey Kahne holds the 11th-place wild-card spot thanks to his two victories, the most of any driver outside the top-10. Kyle Busch vaulted into the 12th-place wild-card spot after Bristol due to his victory April 28 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, combined with his 13th position in the point standings, which is higher than his fellow single-race winners in the top-20 in points – Jeff Gordon, Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Logano.
With round 24 of 36 complete, Stewart continues to lead the SHR duo in the championship point standings. He fell one spot to 10th and has 746 points, 103 back of series leader Greg Biffle and 16 points ahead of 11th-place Kahne. Newman fell two positions to 15th and has 688 points, 161 behind Biffle and 58 behind 10th-place Stewart.
Denny Hamlin won the Irwin Tools Night Race to score his 20th career Sprint Cup victory, his third of the season and his first at Bristol.
Jimmie Johnson finished 1.103 seconds behind Hamlin in the runner-up spot, while Gordon, Brian Vickers and Ambrose rounded out the top-five. Busch, Clint Bowyer, Logano, Kahne and Paul Menard comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 13 caution periods for 87 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish the 500-lap race.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the AdvoCare 500 on Sunday, Sept. 2 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The race starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with its pre-race show at 6:30 p.m.