INDIANAPOLIS — Entering Sunday’s Brickyard 400, Tony Stewart said he was glad Jeff Gordon was returning to the Cup Series as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s substitute driver because Gordon would take some of the spotlight away. And following Sunday’s race, Stewart showed just how much he wanted Gordon in that spotlight.
After Stewart finished 11th and Gordon finished 13th, the two drivers took a slow victory lap around the track side-by-side in what’s likely the final appearance at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for either driver.
“I can say that just ranks in the top three coolest moments of my 18 years in this series,” Stewart said. “To share that moment with Jeff here at Indianapolis I don’t know. I don’t even have the words for it. That is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Stewart said he got the idea to get Gordon to take a lap with him before the race ended.
“I knew when we got the checkered, I just didn’t want to come in quite yet,” Stewart said. “I wanted to run one more lap. Jeff was around us. Before that, last green run, I told my spotter to get his spotter and say after this thing is over, we need to go a lap around together.
“It most likely is the last time we both get a chance to do that, so I couldn’t think of a better guy to share that final lap with.”
Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion, two-time Brickyard 400 winner and Indiana native, is retiring at the end of the 2016 season. Gordon, who got a ton of fanfare in 2015 when he, along with everyone else, thought the four-time champion and five-time Brickyard 400 winner was making his final Brickyard start, was back as a contingency plan for Junior, who’s sidelined because of concussion concerns.
“Well, Tony and I have gone through a lot over the years,” Gordon said. “But he and I have become really good friends. I was with him when he got hurt this year [riding a sand buggy]. And to see what he’s done and how tough he is as a competitor; I’ve always know what a great guy and what a great race car driver he is and now I know more about who Tony Stewart really is. I’m just so proud that I was able to be here and race with him in his final race.”
Stewart started Sunday’s race in third and made a daring three-wide move for second place on the first lap. That move was his race’s highlight. The handling on his car quickly went away and he faded to 10th before the first pit stop of the race.
While he hung around the top 10 after that, all hope of a top-five finish disappeared thanks to a pit-road speeding penalty. Stewart was on pit road when David Ragan crashed on lap 117 and ended up staying on the tail end of the lead lap. But since Stewart was speeding, he had to start the ensuing restart at the back of the pack and lost a lap in the process, admitting he “really did the team wrong.”
Stewart got back on the lead lap, and things got even dicier as he worked his way towards 11th. He got crash damage from a multi-car incident on lap 163 and then sustained more damage when Jamie McMurray dove in front of him and spun off his bumper.
Gordon run around 15th for most of the day and said he struggled with something very familiar for Gordon observers. Restarts.
“The challenges to be out there against the best, especially on those restarts; I got my butt kicked on those restarts,” Gordon said. “It was embarrassing.”
Though Gordon did say he had fun at times during Sunday’s race and was quick to admit the experience was better than 2015 when he crashed out early in the race. And he’ll also get a chance to work on his restarts before filling in for Junior again at Pocono next week.
“I enjoyed moments,” Gordon said. “When we were up in 12th and [crew chief Greg Ives] made an excellent call to come in a little early. We got the car much better. I was having fun at that point. This is a challenging, challenging race track. Really hard to get all four corners. There were moments of fun. I didn’t want to see those restarts. I’m horrible on restarts … but I got a few back on that last one.”
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