Tony Stewart finally looks like the Smoke of old at Martinsville

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On a track that is the oldest in NASCAR, Tony Stewart went vintage and retro in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Driving perhaps the best race he’s had in a very difficult season, Stewart dug deep to look like the Smoke of old, finishing fourth, tying his best performance – and only his third top-five showing – of the season. In 31 career starts at the half-mile bullring, Stewart now has three wins, 10 top-five and 16 top-1o finishes in his Cup career.

Stewart came up short again of extending his own personal record of at least one win in the last 16 seasons, but with the way he drove Sunday, it bodes well for him still to take the checkered flag at Texas (two career wins), Phoenix (one) or Homestead (three wins).

The biggest key for Stewart’s strong finish was the decision to follow the race leaders – including eventual winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and runner-up Jeff Gordon onto pit road with less than 10 laps to go.

Each driver took four tires and a splash of fuel. It worked out best for Junior and Gordon, but Stewart has nothing to be ashamed of.

“If we had to do that 100 times over, we would have done the same thing,” Stewart told ESPN. “We had nothing to lose. It was worth the gamble.

“Where we were at in fifth, you didn’t know what was going to happen, who would have taken two tires, something could have happened on the pit stop, a lot of variables could have gone wrong there.

“I’d rather have taken the chance and fight at the end of that. We still ended up a spot better than we were when that caution came out.”

Stewart has gone through the two most challenging seasons of his career.

In 2013, his season was cut short after 21 of the scheduled 36 races when he suffered a severely broken leg in a sprint car wreck.

In 2014, Stewart was already having a less than normal season when he was involved in the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, prompting him to miss three races out of respect to the late racer.

But even when he came back for the Labor Day race at Atlanta, Stewart still continued to struggle.

In the eight races since he returned following the Ward tragedy, Stewart finished 41 (Atlanta), 15 (Richmond), 18 (Chicago), 30 (Loudon), 14 (Dover), 17 (Kansas), 21 (Charlotte) and 34 (Talladega).

But Sunday at a track Stewart used to hate early in his career, he finally broke through with his best showing since finishing fifth at Fontana in the fifth race of the season, and tying his best outing of fourth, the week before that at Bristol.

Stewart looked substantially relieved after Sunday’s race, and while he did the obligatory thanking to his crew for its hard work and sticking with him, Stewart also gave credit to those who also stick with him race in and race out, from one season to the next.

“Our fans, they have been plowing a tough road for the last 18 months,” Stewart said. “This top-five is for the fans.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski