The fastest Coca-Cola 600 on record couldn’t end soon enough for Tony Stewart. The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) endured a 25th-place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ longest race, despite a record pace of 3 hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds.
Stewart’s career-best Coca-Cola 600 finish of third back in May 2001 remained a distant memory as the three-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion dealt with an ill-handling racecar throughout the entire 400-lap marathon at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
Stewart started 21st as the race began in the heat of the day. Conventional wisdom said that Stewart’s fortunes would improve as day turned to night and the track cooled, allowing for changing track conditions what would positively augment the setup beneath the Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy.
It didn’t happen, and crew chief Steve Addington was forced to make wholesale changes during each and every pit stop – many of which happened under green, as there were only five caution periods for 23 laps.
Nonetheless, after dropping to as low as 27th by lap 50 and falling a lap down to the leaders, Stewart and Addington began to rally.
Addington’s chassis adjustments and Stewart’s tenaciousness behind the wheel put the team in position to get its lap back, which they did on lap 133.
Back on the lead lap and with a car that was much less of a handful than it was at the beginning of the race, Stewart began making forward progress, cracking the top-20 on lap 175 and then rising to 15th by lap 255.
But when Stewart attempted to make his seventh pit stop of the evening on lap 264, his race, and his pit stop, went into a tailspin.
Stewart entered his pit stall just as Brad Keselowski was pulling out of his. The result was a meeting of Keselowski’s front bumper into the left-rear corner of Stewart’s car. After the race, both drivers accepted responsibility.
Stewart spun and Keselowski motored off pit road. What followed was a burnout by Stewart that would make his counterparts in the NHRA proud.
Already heading in the opposite direction, Stewart gunned his engine and drove forward before spinning himself around to point himself in the direction of his pit stall. He then gunned the engine again, and with his rear tires spinning incessantly, crab-walked into his pit stall. With four tires, a full tank of fuel and another myriad round of chassis adjustments, Stewart was back on track, albeit two laps down.
The quickest Coca-Cola 600 on record seemed anything but for Stewart, as he finished the marathon event three laps down.