Tony Stewart said the elimination race at ISM Raceway, where all four of Stewart-Haas Racing’s cars were fighting for a maximum of two places in the Championship 4, was a much harder day and more stressful than he had anticipated.
Kevin Harvick ultimately did advance while his teammates either experienced trouble or came up short of winning the race. And had Aric Almirola, won the Can-Am 500, it would have knocked out Harvick because of how the points fell.
“Obviously, I ran through all the scenarios in my mind of what could happen and what had to happen for each car, but it was much more stressful than I thought,” Stewart told on his ‘Happy Hours’ show Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Especially since Chase [Elliott] ran so well all day. If Chase won the race, it didn’t matter on the points, and that was going to block all four of us out. There was a lot going on, a lot of variables enough for one car let alone to have every car at some point have to battle something it seemed like.”
Almirola and Clint Bowyer were in must-win situations. Almirola charged late and got as high as second place, but faded to fourth. Bowyer crashed out of the race on Lap 135 because of a cut tire.
Kurt Busch led 52 laps but was penalized from the race lead after he passed the pace car while coming to pit road under caution at lap 136. Stewart was heard on the No. 41 team radio telling Busch he needed to calm down because he had a good car and could recover. Busch received the free pass on lap 230.
“The owner just wanted to go home,” said Stewart. “I think halfway through the second stage after [Bowyer] had a tire failure and crashed, and you [Harvick] had a tire failure, and I’m like, man, I just… and then we get Kurt in the lead, and Kurt gets the penalty for passing the pace car coming into pit road. Which was 1,000 percent his fault. It was a legit penalty. So, after all that I was like, ‘I just want this day to be over.’
“But you got five guys, yourself included, that are racing for one spot, essentially. The hard part is you’re sitting there, and at different points in the race you’ve got different guys that are in position to make that happen and get themselves in there. But you find yourself being a parent that doesn’t want to have to have a favorite child. You want all of them to be successful, and you want all of them to be able to get into that final round, but you know realistically only one of them is going to have that opportunity.”
Once back on the lead lap, Busch charged through the field and his team used track position to get him back into the top five. But his title hopes were dashed when Denny Hamlin collided with him on lap 270 to start a multicar accident. When Busch climbed out of his car on pit road, Stewart was there to offer him some friendly words.
“With Kurt yesterday, Kurt made a mistake coming to pit road,” said Stewart. “When you’re in a situation where you’re in a must-win situation like he’s in, it’s easy to force yourself into a mistake, and he got himself put behind the eight-ball. Got down a lap. The impressive part for me was sitting on the 4 box and watching Kurt – he had to start at the tail of the field and drove up to, like, fourth or fifth place of the lead lap cars. He had to pass all the lap down cars before he even got to the lead lap cars, and got all the way up to fourth before the caution came out. To see that drive… nobody really saw it because they only really knew what was going on with the lead lap cars, but sitting there watching that, that was the most impressive drive of the day.
“Denny just got loose off of 2. That’s hard racing. It was more just having the conversation with Kurt of, ‘Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t go to the media and blast NASCAR because you did make a mistake. It was your fault. Not NASCAR’s fault.’ And just telling him, listen you did everything you could do yesterday. He absolutely drove his ass off. Ran a great race. Battled adversity after his mistake coming to pit road, and absolutely did everything perfect from that moment on, and that’s what I wanted him to understand. ‘Listen, you did more great things than the one mistake you made. Don’t let that one mistake overshadow what your performance was today and what you’ve done all year.’ The photo … looks like he’s sobbing on my shoulder and I’m consoling him, that’s not what it was. It was a boss and his driver, and more so two friends, sitting there having a conversation, saying ‘don’t let that one mistake and don’t let this crash overshadow what you did today as a race car driver and what you’ve done all year’.”
Harvick will look to give Stewart his third championship as a car owner Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.