As Tony Stewart endured three leg surgeries in a three-month span last fall, and as he continues several days a week to tough it out through painful hours-long physical therapy sessions to rehabilitate his once badly broken right leg, it's days like last Sunday that he envisioned.
Sunday was the first light at the end of the tunnel: Stewart and his new Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch dicing it up for a win on a green-white-checkered overtime no-holds-barred finish at Auto Club Speedway. For the first time this season, two SHR cars were nose-to-tail and door-to-door looking very much up for settling a victory in-house.
Although Busch's younger brother Kyle snuck through a final lap of controlled bedlam for the win, he had to get around the SHR contingent to do so. Kurt Busch still collected a season-best third-place and Stewart's fifth-place effort was his second straight top-five.
It marked the first race SHR had two top-five finishers. Immediately after the checkered flag Busch hurried over to Stewart's No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet for a hearty handshake with his boss.
"It's just too bad one of us didn't win it, but it was fun racing hard," Busch told Stewart on pit road.
"Good job, bud," Stewart replied, smiling widely and perhaps experiencing a mixed bag of relief and pride.
It was the first time since his injury that Stewart had been in legitimate contention for a win and he has been adamant that the injury isn't a factor in his racing. Drives like Sunday's may at last put that to rest. No one was asking about his leg after the race, that's for sure.
"I'm just glad I was in the front of it all for once, normally we end up getting stuck in the back of these and it ends up working like it did for some of the guys that ran up front all day and didn't get back up there,'' said Stewart, who also had his best qualifying effort (10th) of the season last weekend.
"Two weeks in a row (crew chief) Chad (Johnston has) made an awesome pit call at the end of the day to get in the right position. And especially here in California where Haas Automation headquarters are (co-owner) Gene (Haas) has been really proud of that 41 car (Busch) and getting it going. I'm glad they got it going today."
Of the four SHR cars, Busch had struggled the mightiest so far. He hadn't had a top-20 before California.
"We needed that," Busch said. "This season started good with leading laps and running up front, but it's been horrible with our finishes. So it was nice to race the boss Tony Stewart for a win.
"You're excited in one moment. The second moment when it sets in, it's like wait a minute, neither the 14 nor the 41 won the race today."
SHR Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli will take the outcome. More typically one car has been on while the others had struggles. Getting multiple cars competitive in the same race is a sure sign of progress.
Not only was Zipadelli encouraged by the finish -- set up on a two-tire gamble by both Busch and Stewart teams -- but SHR actually had three top-15 runs counting Danica Patrick's 14th-place finish.
The second-year Cup driver has had career-best showings in four of the five races this year.
"Awesome, awesome improvements from where we were last year (with Danica) and two cars in the top five are the right direction," Zipadelli said.
It was the third straight week the team's only 2014 winner, Kevin Harvick, had trouble. A brake problem, an accident and then on Sunday a tire issue -- times two -- gives him three consecutive finishes of 36th or worse.
The outcome was more frustrating considering he raced all the way back into the top five after the first tire problem only to have another just past the midpoint of the race. His 275 laps led in three races is still best for SHR this season.
"It's kind of the same story as the last few weeks, we'll have a really strong run going, and something happens and we don't get the finish that we deserve," Harvick said. "It's really frustrating. I'm proud of the effort that the guys on this No. 4 team put in every week. It isn't for lack of effort. It's just unfortunate situations or part failures that have us trending in the wrong direction."
The upside is that his win at Phoenix has already earned him an all-but-guaranteed spot in the new victory-centric Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship format.
The bigger upside is that all four SHR cars have shown the kind of promise expected of a top-tier team boasting a top-tier driver lineup.
The notoriously tough Martinsville shaped short track will be another big test of momentum. Stewart, Busch and Harvick all have wins there and Patrick still considers her rookie efforts there last year among the highlights of her first season, right up with the 2013 Daytona 500 top-10.
Busch's win came back in 2002, however, and he hasn't had a top-five there since 2005. Harvick won this race in 2011 and scored three consecutive top-six runs from 2010-11. Stewart has three poles and three wins, the last coming in his 2011 Cup championship year.
Patrick finished 12th and 17th there last season, which is impressive considering she started 32nd and 41st, respectively, on a track where passing -- and passing cleanly -- is no easy matter.
Neither is the challenge for SHR this year easy with the team expanding to four cars, bringing on two new drivers in Harvick and Busch, nurturing a second-year driver in Patrick and facilitating Stewart's return from a serious injury.
However, if Sunday is any indication, SHR is looking very much up for the challenge.
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