Stewart’s struggles this year have been well-documented. After announcing that 2016 would be his final season in Cup before handing his ride to Clint Bowyer, the three-time series champion was critically injured in an off-road accident on January 31, making him miss the first eight races of the season. He returned to competition at Richmond, finishing 19th, handed his #14 Chevrolet to Ty Dillon at Talladega who then finished 6th, then returned to run 11th at Kansas and 34th at Dover. He came into the All-Star break 37th in driver points, still searching for a victory to get him into his final Chase.
In Saturday’s postponed practice session, Stewart was the slowest of 15 qualifiers for the All-Star Race, managing just 188.627 mph to Brad Keselowski’s session-topping speed of 192.027. With qualifying and all remaining practices washed out, Stewart was set to roll off 17th. The session was deemed too short to set the field, so owner points were used instead. Stewart’s spot was buoyed slightly by the relief driving work of Ty Dillon and Brian Vickers.
Starting in the 20th and last position for Saturday’s main event was Greg Biffle, who wheeled his #16 Cheez-It Ford to his second-consecutive win in the Showdown by claiming Segment 2. Biffle held the spot until Lap 24, when Denny Hamlin’s mandated green-flag stop began the night’s flurry of conflicting rules and strategy new to this year’s race. Danica Patrick was the first to lose a lap on the 28th circuit in her #10 Nature’s Bakery Chevrolet, gave the spot back to Biffle on Lap 30. Jamie McMurray’s #1 Bas Pro Shops / NWTF.org Chevrolet had it on Lap 32, followed by Danica again on Lap 44.
The first on-track incident to shuffle the order took place on Lap 47. McMurray’s ill-handling #1 spun off Turn 2, drawing the caution that trapped drivers down a lap and penalized Matt Kenseth. Under the ensuing caution, smoke puffed from beneath McMurray’s right-rear fender. It wasn’t until Lap 73 that the battle for last actually ended.
Coming off Turn 4, Stewart was running near the back of the pack, still trying to make up a lap he’d lost during the McMurray caution. At that moment, Chase Elliott slowed his #24 3M Chevrolet from a battle for the lead and plummeted through the pack, apparently headed to pit road. In a move apparently to avoid Elliott, Matt Kenseth cut right, side-swiping Stewart and shoving the #14 directly into the wall. Stewart bounced off the SAFER barrier, then slid into the grass, where his nose dug the grass as he was hit again by Kasey Kahne’s #5 Hendrick & Quicken Loans Drive Home A Winner Chevrolet.
Stewart, furious over the night’s chaos and conflicting rules, was done for the night. He came home one lap behind of Kahne and Kenseth, both also eliminated in the wreck. McMurray’s #1 never handled right after his spin, leaving him 17th, followed by his disappointed teammate Kyle Larson. That morning, Larson literally raced Elliott door-to-door for the final transfer spot into the All-Star Race. With Elliott the fan vote winner, both teams got their cars fixed up in time for the race, and Larson found himself leading the final 13-lap segment. However, with just two laps to go, a fast-closing Joey Logano found his way by as Larson slid into the outside wall, ending his night.
*This marked the first last-place finish for both Stewart and the #14 in the All-Star Race.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
20) #14-Tony Stewart / 70 laps / crash
19) #5-Kasey Kahne / 71 laps / crash
18) #20-Matt Kenseth / 71 laps / crash
17) #1-Jamie McMurray / 110 laps / running
16) #42-Kyle Larson / 111 laps / crash
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