Tired of questions and doubt, Tony Stewart shows he’s back and just fine at Bristol

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The best way to get Tony Stewart inspired seems to be when he’s ticked off – and the proof of that was in his fourth-place finish in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

As the first three weeks of the 2014 season had played out, Stewart had grown weary of questions from media and fans about how he was physically and how far he’s recovered since last August’s sprint car mishap that left him with a severely fractured right leg, causing him to miss the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup season.

When he got to Bristol last Thursday, Stewart may not have wanted to be reminded – but of course, the media did so – about his overall career record at the half-mile bullring, the second-worst performing track in his personal Cup annals.

A poor qualifying performance Saturday, forcing Stewart to take a provisional to sit 37th on Sunday’s starting grid didn’t help, either.

Enough was enough for Stewart, it would appear, as on Sunday he drove like the Smoke of old and gave hope to diehard fans who were concerned about the slow and dismal start he had in the season’s first three races (35th at Daytona, 16th at Phoenix, 33rd at Las Vegas).

“It’s not a win, I know that, but it feels like a win,” Stewart said. “I think we will take that.  Come to Bristol and run 500 laps here and a top five, that is just what the doctor ordered.”

Admittedly, there still is a slight downside. For as well as he performed, because of the way he finished in the three races beforehand, Stewart only improved slightly in the Sprint Cup standings, from 27th to 23rd.

Even so, there is now hope where there was little before Bristol, where he earned his best finish since a runner-up showing in the 2010 spring race there, four years ago.

Smoke may not be totally back, but Sunday’s finish would seem to indicate that he’s at least on the right track.

“To start 37th and end up fourth today, I’m pretty excited about that,” Stewart said. “We had a long way to go from Friday, when we weren’t very good and every day we just got better and better. So, I’m really proud of this team.”

Of course, Stewart was once again asked how he felt physically after the race. Would you expect anything less from the media?

Without batting an eye, his response was vintage Stewart, bringing the house down with laughter: “I feel great! Let’s do it again!”

While Stewart will likely continue to be ticked off every now and then by the media, for at least a few days he shook off the pessimists and can look forward to next Sunday’s race at Fontana with optimism.

“It’s a step in the right direction for sure,” Stewart said. “This is a big one. If you come out of this place with a top-five you’ve had a good day.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 2017 driver review: Lewis Hamilton

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Following on from the driver reviews from the Verizon IndyCar Series, MotorSportsTalk kicks off its Formula 1 recaps by looking back on Lewis Hamilton’s championship year.

Lewis Hamilton

Team: Mercedes AMG Petronas
Car No.: 44
Races: 20
Wins: 9
Podiums (excluding wins): 4
Pole Positions: 11
Fastest Laps: 7
Points: 363
Laps Led: 527
Championship Position: 1st

Lewis Hamilton may have wrapped up his fourth Formula 1 world title with two races to spare, but his margin of victory was far from representative of what was arguably his greatest championship victory yet.

Mercedes entered 2017 bidding to become the first team to defend its titles across a seismic regulation change, and appeared to be on the back foot early on after Ferrari impressed in pre-season testing and won the opening race through Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton was left wrestling with a “diva” of a car, as coined by Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, but was able to get on top of it by the second race of the year in China, taking a dominant win in wet-dry conditions.

The win was representative of Hamilton’s form through the first portion of the season. When he won, he won in style – as in Spain, Canada and on home soil in Great Britain – but the off weekends saw him struggle.

Heading into the summer break, Vettel’s championship lead stood at 14 points, with the pair’s on-track rivalry having already spilled over in Baku when they made contact behind the safety car.

But Hamilton then produced the form that propelled him to titles in 2014 and 2015, breaking the back of the season through the final flyaways. As Vettel and Ferrari capitulated over the Asian rounds, picking up just 12 points when a full score of 75 for three wins was certainly in reach, Hamilton capitalised and put himself on the brink of the title.

While Hamilton’s run to P9 in Mexico was a messy way to wrap up his hardest-fought title to date, getting across the line and the job done was a significant result.

Unlike his last two titles, Hamilton was tasked with an enemy outside of the team in this title race and a car that arguably wasn’t the fastest on the grid.

But his unquestionable talent and ability to dig deep to get himself out of tough situations – Singapore and Brazil being two key examples where the result was far from expected – proved crucial once again.

Hamilton is now in the annals of F1 history as one of its all-time greats. The pole record is his, and only two drivers can boast more world titles than him (Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio).

Depending on how long he wants to continue racing, going down as F1’s statistical all-time great is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Season High: Charging from the pit lane to P4 in Brazil, a race he could have even won.

Season Low: Dropping out in Q2 in Monaco, only recovering to P7 in the race.