Tony Stewart’s hopes for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, and his fourth Cup title overall, in his final season as a driver on the circuit are over.
The Columbus resident’s title shot was on life support as he entered Sunday’s Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover (Delaware) International Speedway in 15th place among the 16 qualified drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With the race serving as the first cut in the playoff format to eliminate the bottom four drivers, Stewart needed to win or perform well to gain enough points to advance.
His title chances crashed with a 13th-place finish that left him in 13th place in the Chase standings. The top 12 made the cut to the next round.
Stewart needed the strong effort at Dover because the 10-race Chase playoff started slowly for him. He finished 16th at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 18, and 23rd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 25.
“Before the season started, we said our only goal was to go out and have fun. Anything else would be icing on the cake. It’s been fun but we’ve also been able to run really well. We aren’t going to change. We are going to keep having fun all the way to Homestead,” Stewart said, referring to the final race on the NASCAR schedule Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The end of Stewart’s championship bid was emotional for his mother, Pam Boas.
Stewart said in a post-race interview that he desired to move on in the Chase, but that the way his car has been running, had had no expectations. His eye is on the end of the season and to try to get through the rest of the races.
“The pressure is off,” Boas said. “Trying to make it into the Chase was one, and he made it. Then, trying to make it forward, was the next step. He’ll be disappointed, but he’s going to move forward and finish out the rest of the year.”
Stewart’s father, Nelson Stewart, agreed.
“Now I hope it’s about going out and having fun and winning some more races,” he said. “He doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. He’s been good for the sport.
“I hate to see it end like this, but it’s one of those things,” his father added, referring to Tony being knocked out of Chase contention. “He got a lot better as (Sunday’s race) went on. There weren’t that many (cautions), but in the last 100 laps, I’d say he had one of the faster cars.”
Stewart, 45, announced on Sept. 30, 2015, that he would retire from the NASCAR Sprint Cup series after the 2016 season — his 18th at the highest level of stockcar racing. He said it was the right time. Stewart added that while he’d continue his role as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, the change would allow him to return to his roots of dirt-track racing.
His final season as a NASCAR driver has been a roller coaster.
He missed the first eight races because he injured his back in an all-terrain vehicle accident Jan. 31 in dunes near San Diego. He sustained a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra and had surgery Feb. 3.
He finally returned to racing April 24 with a 19th-place finish, and followed that with a sixth-place finish. Then he had five consecutive finishes of 12th or lower, including four of 20th or worse.
Stewart finally heated up as the warm-weather months arrived.
Starting with a seventh-place finish June 12 in Michigan, Stewart posted six top-10 finishes in eight races. That stretch included a victory June 26 in Sonoma, California, that snapped an 84-race winless streak.
That hot streak was followed by another cold streak.
In the six races from Aug. 20 to Sept. 25, Stewart never finished higher than 16th, and his average finish was 26th. He also entered the Dover race having led only one lap in the 12 races after his Sonoma win.
With the championship no longer a possibility for Stewart, his focus will turn to having as much fun as he can in the final seven races before he steps down as a NASCAR driver.
“He’s been so laid back this year,” Boas said. “The win at Sonoma was a huge bonus. Just to be able to win one before he leaves the series this year was truly an awesome thing. But after the next seven races, he’s done, he’s going to turn the page and start the next chapter.”
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The next NASCAR Sprint Cup race is the Bank of America 500 at 7 p.m. Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.