Mar 16, 2014, 11:36 PM EDT
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