Home stretch

For The Tribune


Sunday’s Brickyard 400 might have been Tony Stewart’s last NASCAR race in the state of Indiana, but his final season is far from over — and he’s still eager to go out on top.

Kyle Busch obliterated the rest of the Brickyard field, winning the race for the second year in a row. Coincidentally, it’s Busch’s blueprint that Stewart will be trying to copy in his quest for a fourth career Sprint Cup championship.

Last year, Busch missed the first 11 races of the year due to an injury, got on a hot streak and ended up rallying to claim the crown. Likewise, Stewart was sidelined for the first eight races on this year’s schedule, but he too is picking up momentum at the right time.

In fact, Stewart is arguably in better position now than Busch was after last year’s Brickyard.

With his 11th-place finish Sunday, Stewart moved past Casey Mears and into 27th place in the Sprint Cup standings. He earned 30 points at the Brickyard, bumping his season total up to 317.

In 2015, Busch had 298 points coming out of Indianapolis, and he was sitting in 32nd place, still (albeit very temporarily) outside of the Chase for the Cup grid.

On the flip side, last year’s Brickyard was Busch’s third consecutive victory and his fourth overall in nine starts, so while he didn’t have as many total points as Stewart, he had more momentum.

Not that Stewart doesn’t have any momentum, of course. The bulk of his 317 points have come during his recent hot streak — 199 over the past six races.

So despite an uneven performance on Sunday, Stewart is still brimming with confidence.

“We’ve got speed now,” he said after the race, “and that’s the good thing. Even as bad as we were today, we still had speed. So we’ll keep fighting all the way to the end, man.”

Stewart has been much happier of late than he has been in several years. Part of that is because he’s performing considerably better than he was the past two or three seasons, which were derailed by injuries and other setbacks — but part of it is also that he’s making it a point to enjoy his farewell tour.

“We’re just having fun with it, and that’s what we said we wanted to do at the start of the year,” Stewart said. “We wanted to have fun and win a race.

“We’ve done all that, and I don’t think we’re quite done yet.”

If history is any indication, he’s probably not. Stewart has won at least once on all but one of the 16 tracks remaining on the schedule, and he’s won multiple times on 10 of them. There’s a decent chance he can close with a flurry, as Busch did last season, and exit as a champion.

If he doesn’t, he’s still going to enjoy giving it a shot.

“We’re going to fight every race and get everything we can get out of it,” Stewart said, “and we’re going to leave smiling.”

Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.