The last 30 minutes of final practice Saturday allowed Tony Stewart to rally to a fifth-place finish in the last 60 laps of the AAA Texas 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
After dealing with an ill-handling racecar for much of the 335-lap race around the 1.5-mile oval, the sum of crew chief Steve Addington’s multiple changes finally came together after a four-tire pit stop during a caution period on lap 276. A track bar adjustment augmented Stewart’s driving style just enough to allow him the ability to wheel his No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet around the fast confines of Texas. And with quick pit work by his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) crew, Stewart gained six spots before the race returned to green, as Stewart entered the pits in 13th place and left in seventh.
On the lap 281 restart, Stewart drifted to 10th and held steady among the top-10 until Marcos Ambrose’s crash on lap 310 brought out the caution again. Stewart took the opportunity to get four fresh tires, each tweaked with an air pressure setting that better suited his Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy. And when the jack dropped and Stewart roared off pit road, it was another stellar stop for the No. 14 team. After coming into the pits in 10th, Stewart left in seventh.
The race restarted on lap 316, and Stewart hunted down Clint Bowyer to grab sixth on lap 318. Stewart kept improving his times each lap, and on the final restart – a green-white-checkered restart that extended the race one lap past its scheduled 334-lap distance – Stewart pounced, grabbing fifth from Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“What an awesome, awesome comeback,” said Stewart after scoring his 12th top-five result of 2012 and his sixth top-five in 22 career Sprint Cup starts at Texas. “I know a fifth-place run isn’t normally something to celebrate, but the setup we ran in the car was something that with 30 minutes to go in happy hour yesterday, we tried. The car wasn’t handling very well, and I just asked Steve Addington, I said, ‘Listen, even if it’s a big step backward, I want to try to make a big step forward.’
“We took almost until the last three minutes of practice; we got back on the racetrack and got six laps on this setup with this package. And then all day Steve just kept tweaking on it and working on it, and we threw a lot of big things at it to get it nice. But at the end, that was the best the car had been. I’m so proud of the effort of him and the crew yesterday and the pit crew today. Those last two stops they did were money. They really, really stepped it up. Probably the happiest I’ve ever been to run fifth in a long time.”
Stewart started 21st, picking up a total of 16 positions when the checkered flag dropped. It was the kind of gritty performance that allowed Stewart to win his third Sprint Cup title last year after a thrilling battle with Carl Edwards.
“We needed another hour of practice to get the car nice, and we had to take the whole race to do it,” said Stewart, who came into Texas as the defending winner of the AAA Texas 500. “At the end there, it felt like the car from last year. I’m really proud of that effort. That’s a championship effort right there. It may not get a championship out of us this year, but that was a championship effort.”
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet for SHR, finished 12th. It was his 21st top-15 finish of 2012 and his eighth top-15 in 19 career Sprint Cup starts at Texas.
SHR driver Danica Patrick, who is driving the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing via a collaborative agreement with SHR, finished 24th in her first Sprint Cup race at Texas. It was her best career Sprint Cup finish, coming in her ninth start.
Jimmie Johnson won the AAA Texas 500 to score his 60th career Sprint Cup victory, his fifth of the season and his second at Texas. The win marked the 700th Sprint Cup victory for Chevrolet and made Johnson only the eighth driver in Sprint Cup history to record 60 or more wins.
Brad Keselowski finished .808 of a second behind Johnson in the runner-up spot, while Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Stewart rounded out the top-five. Bowyer, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were nine caution periods for 49 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish.
Stewart is representing SHR in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and came into the eighth race of the 10-race Chase in 10th place among the 12 Chase drivers, 71 points behind Chase leader Johnson. Stewart leaves Texas eighth in the standings, 80 points behind Johnson, who remained in the top spot.
Newman moved up one spot to 14th place in the standings. He has 969 points, 79 back of 13th-place Kyle Busch.