Tony Stewart is getting back to being his old self. At least on the racetrack, that is.
Stewart’s fourth-place finish Sunday at Martinsville, Va., proved that, and it seems to only be a question of when, not if, he returns to Victory Lane.
“I’d be thrilled to have him in Victory Lane again on Sunday,” Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said. “That would be a lot of fun. It’s a good thing when Tony does well and the sport is better when Tony is doing well. I think everyone in the sport is behind him.”
Stewart had been a relative non-factor since taking three races off after his car hit and killed a 20-year-old driver during a dirt-track race Aug. 9. In the eight races since his return, Stewart had no top-10s and and average finish of 23.8.
On Sunday, Stewart was right in the thick of it at the end, the one driver who tried to make a push on old tires. He held the lead briefly after a late restart, but quickly gave way to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon on the final laps.
Afterward, Stewart was all smiles.
“It feels really good — it’s been way too long since we’ve been in this position, for sure,” said Stewart, who hadn’t had a top-five finish since March.
“This is as good as a win to me.”
Those closest to Stewart say it has been an unthinkably difficult time for him in the weeks following the accident. He was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the death of the driver, Kevin Ward Jr., who was under the influence of marijuana, tests later showed.
But there are some who might think it’s still too soon for Stewart to be enjoying success on the track.
Gossage understands each side of the issue and that Stewart will be a divisive winner whenever he takes a checkered flag again.
“You know, those that are going to hate are gonna hate,” Gossage said. “So you can’t really worry about that. I’m sure Tony doesn’t. That horrible accident has nothing to do with whether Tony should perform well or try hard or whether we should be excited if he wins. I’m pulling for him because he’s a good man and I want him to do well.”
Gossage might get his wish this weekend. It’s hard to find a track outside of Texas that suits Stewart better. It would be a logical spot for him to continue his streak of having at least one Sprint Cup win per season since 1999.
Stewart is one of seven drivers with multiple wins at TMS and has 13 top-10 runs in 24 starts, including six top-five finishes.
He’s also coming to the track feeling better about himself than he has in a while. At Martinsville, he flashed signs of being the old “Smoke.”
He was the only leader to stay on the track with old tires. Someone had to chance it, of course, and it only made sense for Stewart when the three cars in front of him headed to pit road.
Stewart knew the odds were against him at that point, but he told his crew chief, Chad Johnston: “We’ve still got a shot at this.”
“Yes, we do,” Johnston replied. “We’ve got you driving it.”
So, yes, Stewart is getting his racing swagger back.
“He was in the middle of the fray when it counts, and that’s where Tony wants to be,” Gossage said. “It does give him a little return to his swagger, and our sport needs people like Tony to add a little color to the sport, add a little sizzle. Special things happen when Tony is on his game, and we need to help get him back on his game, so that was really neat to see at the end of the race.
“He had a smile on his face for the first time in probably months.”
AAA Texas 500
Texas Motor Speedway
2 p.m. Sunday, ESPN
Tony Stewart at Texas
Wins: 2 (Fall races in 2006, 2011)
Poles: 2 (Spring races in 2010, 2014)
Top 10s: 13 in 24 starts
Top 5s: 6 in 24 starts
Career laps led: 801, track record
Average finish: 12.95 in 24 starts