Needing a win to make it into the 2014 Chase, Tony Stewart came up short Saturday night at the Federated Auto Parts 400. He ran quietly but consistently to a 15th-place finish at Richmond.
A potential top-10 was thwarted by a miscue on the No. 14 team’s final pit stop. With a missing lug nut on the left rear, Stewart needed to return to the pits a lap later and restarted 15th, where he ultimately finished.
Still, making the Chase was always going to be secondary to resuming on track in his second straight week after returning at Atlanta, and trying to get some semblance of normality back in his life after one of the most trying months of his life in August.
As the rest of the NASCAR season continues, it’s probably for the benefit of the sport – this time around anyway – that Stewart, the driver, isn’t in the Chase.
The investigation into what happened in New York, when Stewart’s car struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., is still ongoing.
Stewart made his first and thus far only public comments upon his return to Atlanta a week ago, and appeared genuinely remorseful and shook up by the experience.
If he was in the Chase, chances are the magnitude of the story could overwhelm the focus on the on-track product; there, Stewart-Haas Racing still has two drivers vying for a championship anyway in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.
The story will still linger until a further resolution or news comes from the Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Office.
But from an on-track perspective, Stewart can go about his business relatively quietly for the final 10 races, without the added pressure of trying to race for a title, and without the scrutiny that could follow him if he was to do well in the Chase.
If he wins a race in the final 10, that will be a new and different story unto itself.
For a driver who usually stars in the spotlight, avoiding it for the rest of the season by missing the Chase may well be a good thing given the outstanding circumstances.