Although the result might have been rather modest, that wasn't going to diminish Tony Stewart's mood after Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Not on an afternoon when he was making his season debut, having recovered from a serious back injury that put his career in peril.
Stewart finished 19th and despite falling down a lap to the leaders at point, he rallied to complete all 400 laps. Afterward he said he felt healthy and in fact could have raced longer if need be.
"Line them up again and let's run another, hell, make it 800 laps," Stewart said. "Line them up, and I'll run 800 laps right now and not have a problem. There will be a bunch of these guys falling out of the seat if they had to run 800 more laps, but I will not be one of them."
The 44-year-old missed eight races with a back injury sustained in a January all-terrain vehicle crash. Stewart was driving a dune buggy through the Southern California desert when he inadvertently went off a dune and fell 20 to 25 feet, suffering a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra.
Stewart, who announced 2016 would be his last as a Sprint Cup driver, was given the OK by doctors to return to competition Wednesday and revealed the news the following day. That he got to come back at Richmond, his favorite track and in an event held in the afternoon made it an added bonus.
"The drivers got to dictate it today as far as, you weren't just stuck in one line," Stewart said. "You had the ability to move around and change lines.
"Part of racing at your favorite race track and running a day race here where it gets slippery and you have to use all of the track. That is what made it fun and that's what I miss, that is the stuff I dearly miss with this series is having days like today where you get on track and you are sliding around and the drivers get to make the difference."
During one juncture Stewart and race-leader Carl Edwards had a spirited tussle as Edwards attempted to put Stewart a lap down. Edwards, who would go on to win, was eventually able to get around Stewart, though it took approximately 15 laps.
"I was real happy he was back till about five laps into that battle," Edwards joked. "... Let me tell you, the guy is competitive. He was trying definitely to stay on the lead lap. He did a really good job. I was thinking during that, ‘Man, what a heck of a first run to have back in the driver's seat.' It was a 160-lap (green flag) run.
"He was wheeling the heck out of it. Good to have him back."
Edwards' sentiments were echoed by Stewart, whose enthusiasm about being back was unmistakable as stood on pit road beside his No. 14 car post-race.
"It was fun," Stewart. "I had a good time, and I'm looking forward to running the rest of this year with these guys."