Carl Edwards taking the checkered flag Sunday afternoon at Richmond was a big deal. How he won the Toyota Owners 400 – bumping JGR teammate Kyle Busch out of the way in Turn 4 – was an even bigger deal.
But perhaps the biggest deal to come out of the .75-mile short track on Sunday could be found mid-pack; 19th place to be exact. It was Tony Stewart.
The 44-year old NASCAR Sprint Cup veteran made his return to the circuit at Richmond after an eight-race hiatus due to a back fracture. The injury occurred in a late-offseason dune buggy accident. Even before Stewart ran the first race of his announced final season, many feared it was already over. Alas, on Sunday afternoon, “Smoke” was risen.
And what’s more, Stewart showed perhaps more fight in 400 laps at Richmond than he did the entire 2015 season. Sure, his No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet never exactly competed for a race win. But after cutting a left rear tire on Lap 268, the Columbus, Ind. native could have given up – ridden around with a bad taste in his mouth for the remaining 132 laps. Last year’s Tony Stewart might have done that.
But this year’s Tony Stewart, sitting in a race car once again after nearly three months away, didn’t do that. Sunday afternoon, Smoke had fun. He battled back. Falling to 28th-place originally and with relatively little time to recover, the three-time Sprint Cup champion rallied. The 19th-place finish probably wasn’t what Stewart had in mind when he envisioned his dream return to the cockpit. But it was respectable. It was hard-earned.
When his return was announced, Stewart received the same waiver and stipulations that 2015 champion Kyle Busch received. Earn a win and place yourself in the top-30 in points by the end of the 26th race of the season, and you’re in. Now, is Stewart likely to repeat the accomplishment of Busch last season? Most likely not.
However if Smoke can just pour it all out and leave it all on the track for just one more season, just like he used to, his farewell tour could be a pretty memorable one – not only for Stewart himself, but for the eyes of the sport watching him.