Nobody left Bristol Motor Speedway Sunday night with a bigger smile on his face than three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and driver of the No. 14 SHR Chevrolet.
No, Stewart didn’t win the race. That distinction belonged to Carl Edwards, the man Stewart bested in the final race of the 2011 season to win his third series championship.
But what Stewart did do at Bristol was impressive nevertheless.
Stewart survived six hours of rain delays and 503 grueling laps around the 0.533-mile high-banked concrete track to finish fourth behind Edwards, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Aric Almirola.
It was by far Stewart’s best run of the season, after posting an average finish of 28th in the first three races of 2014.
"If you come out of this place with a top five, you’ve had a good day," Stewart said. "Track position was big, like it always is here. We were pretty strong at the end, but we just couldn’t run those guys down in front of us. Happy with the day that we had."
The excellent result was important for several reasons.
First, Bristol is an intensely demanding track and a place where Stewart could have been expected to experience pain in his right leg, which is still recovering from a double compound fracture Stewart suffered in a sprint car crash last August.
But the long day into night didn’t give the 42-year-old driver any appreciable problems.
"To come to Bristol and run 500 laps here and get a top five is just what the doctor ordered," Stewart said. "It’s big. This is a physical place. If you look at the lap times we were running — mid-15 second laps around here all day — it’s no walk in the park, by any means. It’s not a win, I know that, but it feels like a win."
Of almost equal importance was the fact that Stewart’s great finish came after an awful qualifying effort on Friday left him 37th on the grid at the start. But Stewart and his first-year crew chief Chad Johnston tuned on the car across three days of practice and racing to find a chassis setup that suited the driver.
"To start 37th and end up fourth today, I’m pretty excited about that," Stewart said. "I’m really excited for Chad Johnston and everybody on this Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 team. Everybody just worked hard all weekend. We had a long way to go from Friday when we weren’t very good, and every day we just got better and better. So, I’m really proud of this team."
Stewart worked his way patiently through the field at Bristol, advancing from 37th to 27th in the first 40 laps and then into the top 20 before a lengthy rain delay of more than three hours that began on Lap 136.
By Lap 275, Stewart was closing in on the top 10.
"Tires look great. You’re doing a good job taking care of them," crew chief Johnston told Stewart after a four-tire pit stop on Lap 278.
Another pit stop, this one on Lap 425 for just two tires, found Stewart seventh and he would stay in the top 10 for the remainder of the race.
Needless to say, his final fourth-place finish left Stewart elated.
"It’s something I needed, for sure. Obviously for Chad and I to work together for the first time for four or five races into the season and be able to get a top-five at Bristol, that is pretty big for us," he said. "We had a really good car, very balanced and very driveable. Chad just kept working on it all day and making it better for us."