The past two seasons have been far from ideal for three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.
A badly broken leg in a sprint car incident ended his 2013 season prematurely, while another sprint car incident that cost the life of Kevin Ward Jr. led Stewart to miss three races this season and deal with off-track controversy unlike anything he had ever experienced.
However, Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, Stewart was in contention for the win for the first time in months, scoring his best finish since Bristol in March.
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The solid run was no fluke, either. Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet was quick throughout the weekend, started the day from the fourth spot and was running inside the top 10 for much of the afternoon.
When a caution for Kyle Larson and Marcos Ambrose flew with just 10 laps to go, Stewart and crew chief Chad Johnston opted to stay on track when the rest of the leaders headed to pit road for the final time of the day.
Restarting the race with the lead, Stewart was able to get out front and as those with fresh tires tried to work their way through the field and by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Ragan, who also stayed out during the final caution of the day.
On older tires, Stewart had nothing for eventual race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet muscled his way by with just four laps to go.
Stewart would fall back to the fourth spot by the time the checkered flag fell, but after the struggles and other distractions he and the team have gone through the season it almost felt like a win for the veteran.
Winless throughout the entire season, Stewart was hoping to continue a 15-year streak of scoring at least one victory each season. With no championship hopes and nothing to lose, the decision to stay out was easy for both driver and crew chief.
"If we had to do that a hundred times over, we’d do the same thing," a visibly happy Stewart said on pit road. "We didn’t have anything to lose. It was worth the gamble. Where we were at in fifth, you didn’t know who was going to do two tires, you didn’t know what could happen, something could happen on the pit stop. There’s just a lot of variables that could have gone wrong there and I’d rather taken the chance and have a fight at the end like that.
"We still ended up a spot better than we were before when the caution came out, so I think that’s about all you can ask for out of this Bass Pro/Mobile 1 Chevy," he said. "Chad Johnston and all these guys did an awesome job. This car was pretty good all weekend, and it was better today than it had been Friday or Saturday."
Noting the rough two-year stretch he has had due to non-NASCAR related incidents, Stewart took time to thank his sponsors, but most of all the fans who stuck with him through injuries and controversy.
"They have been plowing a tough road for the last 18 months," said Stewart. "This top-five is for the fans more than anybody out there."
Stewart is running short on chances to continue his winning streak, but also has wins at each of the next three tracks.
VIDEO: Tony Stewart talks about his fourth-place run at Martinsville