Tony Stewart finished a season-best fourth in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, and the result couldn't have come at a better time.
Entering the Food City 500, Stewart's year had been full of setbacks and struggles. Not only was he working his way back from injury that sidelined him the final 15 races of 2013, but a series of changes both in personnel at Stewart-Haas Racing as well as to NASCAR's Generation-6 car placed him behind the competition entering the season.
A blown engine during practice necessitated that he start at the rear of the field for the Daytona 500. Then an issue with fuel pickup during the race itself saw him finish 35th. This preceded an ordinary 16th-place effort the next week at Phoenix. And then came Las Vegas, where Stewart was a nonfactor throughout and finished a dismal four laps behind the leaders in 33rd.
The subpar performances led to questions about Stewart's health and whether he returned from a broken right leg too soon. (He's said repeatedly his leg is only 65 percent healed and won't be close to 100 percent until sometime next year.) There were also doubts about the competitiveness of SHR, where with the exception of Kevin Harvick the organization had lacked overall speed.
As if this wasn't enough, Stewart was also working with a new crew chief in Chad Johnston. And because of his health the pair never had a chance to build rapport with one another during offseason testing because Stewart didn't get back in the car until Daytona speedweeks.
But for the first time in 2014, Stewart looked like his old self Sunday.
"It's not a win, I know that, but it feels like a win," Stewart said.
From the onset Bristol looked like it would be a continuation of the first three races, as Stewart was slow in practice and qualifying and had to take a rare provisional just to make the race. Needing help, Johnston decided to lean on the No. 4 team of Harvick for information, who had one of the better cars before a broken oil line caused him to crash.
The changes took, as Stewart methodically worked his way to front from his 37th starting position.
"It was great," Stewart said. "To start 37th and end up fourth today, I'm pretty excited about that. 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."
Stewart acknowledged the lack of testing has affected the chemistry between himself and Johnston, and contributed to the struggles early on. And although the owner/driver found success at Bristol the same couldn't be said of the other SHR cars.
The aforementioned Harvick was contending before his fiery crash, while Kurt Busch broke a wheel hub after hitting the wall to avoid the spinning car of his brother Kyle. As for Danica Patrick, she was involved in a couple of incidents, lost all but fourth gear and finished 18th.
"Obviously it wasn't the day we wanted for our teammates," Stewart said. "It is something I needed for sure. Obviously for Chad and I to work together for the first time and four or five races into the season be able to get a top five at Bristol that is pretty big for us."