|SOURCE: Todd Warshaw, Getty Images|
The finish was Stewart’s first of the 2015 season and his first in a Cup race since last November’s season finale at Homestead, 23 races ago. The finish occurred in Stewart’s 576th series start.
Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen was Stewart’s first start in the event since 2012, the absences the result of a pair of tragic dirt-track accidents that brought both a physical and emotional toll on the veteran racer. 2015 had not been a kind season to the three-time series champion with no wins and only two top-ten finishes: a 6th at Bristol and a 9th last week at Pocono. Three times in the first nine races, including the season-opening Daytona 500, Stewart had fallen out due to crashes, and he came to the road course mired in 25th in points.
However, on Saturday, Watkins Glen saw Stewart earn his third-straight top-five start in qualifying with a season-best 3rd at an average speed of 127.481 mph. The car had improved steadily from practice, where it was 14th and 10th in Friday’s two sessions. Following a strong showing at Sonoma in June, where Stewart contended for the win before a pit stop left him 12th, hopes were high that Stewart could get a much-needed boost at the track where he’d won five times previous.
The 43rd starting spot belonged to Timmy Hill, back in what appeared to be the same white #98 Chevrolet that Josh Wise ran at Sonoma, though this time with blue numbers and without the Dogecoin and Reddit logos. Hill was the only Premium Motorsports entry in Sunday’s field as T.J. Bell’s qualifying crash in the XFINITY Series was followed with a DNQ for the #62 Tuctite Hosters Chevrolet that kept Bell from his first Cup start since Dover in September 2012. Hill only held the spot briefly as Chris Buescher, making his first Cup race since Talladega in May, struggled with transmission issues on his #34 Bully Hill Vineyards Ford. Buescher was more than 90 seconds behind the leader after the first circuit and was the first to go down a lap on Lap 3.
Buescher held the 43rd spot for most of the race’s first half as the race for 42nd intensified. J.J. Yeley’s #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota lost touch with the field on Lap 5, then was passed for the spot on Lap 10 by Aric Almirola, whose #43 Smithfield Ford had to make an unscheduled stop following a spin and contact with Paul Menard in Turn 1. On Lap 28, four circuits after Buescher lost his second lap, Jeff Gordon’s ailing #24 Axalta Chevrolet made an unscheduled stop to replace a faulty brake line. The next time by, Gordon took 43rd from Buescher, and for the second time in three races seemed set to score his first last-place finish in Cup since 2008 and his first on a road course.
On Lap 31, Gordon returned to the track 4 laps back and still in the 43rd spot. Buescher began to climb through the standings on Lap 47 when Austin Dillon’s #3 Dow Chevrolet cut down a left-rear tire on the backstretch following an earlier Turn 1 spin with Kyle Larson, the resulting stop dropping Dillon off the lead lap and down to 42nd. When Dillon rejoined Gordon on track with all 43 competitors still running no more than 4 laps in arrears, the last-place battle was still anyone’s to claim when the race went green on Lap 50.
At that moment, Sam Hornish, Jr., running wit the leaders in his #9 Medallion Bank Ford, missed a shift and piled up the inside line, causing a chain reaction that damaged several cars. Most badly damaged was the #5 Time Warner Cable Chevrolet of last week’s last-place finisher Kasey Kahne, whose machine rear-ended another car before he was rear-ended by the #32 Genesee Brewing Company Ford of Boris Said. Kahne went to the garage while both Said and Jamie McMurray received large patches of tape to the noses of their cars. By Lap 54, Kahne had taken 43rd from his teammate Gordon and looked poised to become the first driver to score his first two Cup last-place finishes in consecutive races since September 2003, when Christian Fittipaldi went back-to-back at Darlington and Richmond driving the #43 Cheerios Dodge for Richard Petty.
Heading down the backstretch on Lap 58, Stewart was running around the 15th spot when his #14 slowed suddenly, then pulled off into the infield grass just before the Inner Loop. The fifth and, ultimately, final caution came out to move his car back to the garage area. Stewart’s radio communications indicated both rear axles were broken, but he was soon listed out of the race with a broken rear gear. Under the caution on Lap 60, Kahne returned to the track 10 laps in arrears. The #14 did not return to the race and, along with Yeley last month at Loudon, became the only retiree of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Kahne finally bumped Stewart to last on Lap 68.
Kahne came home 42nd with Gordon 41st and McMurray’s damaged #1 McDonald’s Chevrolet four laps back in 40th. Rounding out the Bottom Five was rookie Jeb Burton, whose #26 Maxim Toyota suffered right-front damage in an earlier incident and ended up two laps back, just behind Hill, Buescher, and Dillon.
*This marks Stewart’s first-ever last-place finish in a NASCAR road course race and the first for the #14 since June 24, 2007, when the engine of Sterling Marlin’s Wiley-X Chevrolet let go after 12 laps of the Toyota / Save Mart 350. The #14 had never finished last in a Cup race at Watkins Glen.
*Stewart’s 3rd-place starting spot makes him the highest-qualified last-place finisher at Watkins Glen since August 12, 2001, when Rusty Wallace started 5th in the Global Crossing at The Glen before his #2 Miller Lite Ford lost the engine after 14 laps.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #14-Tony Stewart / 56 laps / rear gear
42) #5-Kasey Kahne / 78 laps / running
41) #24-Jeff Gordon / 86 laps / running
40) #1-Jamie McMurray / 86 laps / running
39) #26-Jeb Burton / 88 laps / running
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Alex Bowman, Landon Cassill (3)
2nd) J.J. Yeley (2)
3rd) Justin Allgaier, A.J. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Gase, David Gilliland, Sam Hornish, Jr., Kasey Kahne, Bobby Labonte, Brian Scott, Tony Stewart, Josh Wise (1)
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Hillman Smith Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing (3)
2nd) BK Racing, Go FAS Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports (2)
3rd) Front Row Motorsports, HScott Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Phil Parsons Racing / Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing / Circle Sport, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (12)
2nd) Ford (7)
3rd) Toyota (3)