It would have been pretty hard to spoil Tony Stewart’s day Sunday at Richmond (Virginia) International Raceway.
Joey Logano gave it a try — some contact between the two on the 268th of 400 laps led to Stewart’s tire getting cut, putting the Columbus native a bit off the pace.
Stewart, though, continued on, battling his way back from as far back as 28th place to finish 19th in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season after a back injury forced him to miss eight races.
It wasn’t the splashy comeback some fans might have hoped for, but for Stewart, just being back behind the wheel and getting his final season started was enough of a prize.
When asked by Fox Sports immediately the race what he would remember most about his 2016 debut, Stewart had a simple reply: “How much fun I had.”
Richmond, he said, has always been his favorite track, and for good reason. He got his first Cup victory there in 1999 and has claimed two more wins there since. In 34 career starts at the track, he’s had 11 top-five finishes and finished in the top 10 more than half the time.
Sunday didn’t yield another top-10 showing, but it did remind Stewart how much he loves being back competing. When ESPN’s Marty Smith asked him how being sidelined impacted his perspective, he was his usual straightforward self.
“I love the job,” Stewart replied. “I missed driving. I could go 400 more laps right now. A lot of these guys couldn’t. But I could go 800 more. Anybody who thinks I’ve lost anything can kiss my (butt). I haven’t lost (anything).”
Of course, Stewart is still proceeding with caution as he comes back from his offseason injury. He’ll start at Talladega (Alabama) Superspeedway next weekend but pass the wheel pretty early in the race to Ty Dillon, who was on standby for Stewart on Sunday, in order to minimize the risk of injury.
Beginning with the May 7 race at Kansas, Stewart plans to get back to business as usual.
As for chasing a fourth career Sprint Cup championship, he’s got work to do — having missed eight races, Stewart will have to perform quite well the rest of the day to make up the necessary ground in the points standings. But while he’s certainly going to make every effort to get back in the mix, that won’t make or break this farewell tour.
Going into the season, Stewart’s mind seemed more focused on enjoying the last ride, and if Sunday is any indication, that’s exactly what he’s going to do — win or lose.
“It was fun,” Stewart said Sunday. “I had a good time, and I’m looking forward to running the rest of the year with these guys.”
His neighbors in Columbus — and most of the nation’s NASCAR fans — are looking forward to watching.
Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.