RICHMOND, Va. — Any other day, Tony Stewart’s hand gesture is different.
This was Joey Logano after all, a driver Stewart has feuded with before. Their contact on a restart Sunday at Richmond International Raceway caused Stewart’s left rear tire to go down a few laps later as he tried to get back on the lead lap.
After pitting, Stewart was at the back of the field for the restart. Logano was beside him. Stewart saw Logano, stuck his hand out the window … and gave a thumbs up sign.
“That was fun and cool, and I wanted him to know to not worry about it,’’ Stewart said.
That contact, a 19th-place finish and “magic cautions,’’ as Stewart called the debris cautions when he was one spot away from getting the free pass, couldn’t ruin his first start of the season.
Stewart was grateful and giddy to return to the car after missing the season’s first eight races because of a back injury he suffered in a Jan. 31 sand dunes accident. He knows he has only 27 more Sprint Cup races left before he closes this chapter of his life.
Stewart was so excited after his 400-lap drive, he was ready to do it again immediately.
“I can promise you I can outlast these guys,’’ Stewart said. “There’s a bunch of these guys who couldn’t run another 400 laps. I guarantee you at 44 I can still out race a lot of these guys. If there is anybody that thinks we’ve lost it, we haven’t lost shit. So kiss my ass.’’
That’s the spunky Stewart the sport has missed, whose sharp wit and tongue have few equals. It was only fitting that the day he announced he would race at Richmond this weekend, NASCAR fined him for comments questioning the sport’s stance on teams not tightening all five lug nuts on each wheel.
Stewart said he’s not sure what he was fined but didn’t seem to care.
“If I believe strongly in something, I’m going to speak up for it,’’ he said.
NASCAR stated Friday that it would re-evaluate the issue.
“We’ll be patient and wait and see what they come up with,’’ Stewart said. “At least they’re going to fix it.’’
Nothing changed Sunday with several teams gluing four lug nuts on a wheel instead of five.
Stewart was having too much fun to mind. His radio chatter was reminiscent of the days he ran at the front. About the only thing missing was his “here kitty, kitty, kitty’’ call.
His quips had his team smiling.
“Man, a cold Busch beer or an ice cream sandwich would look really good right now,’’ Stewart radioed his crew about 80 laps from the end of the 400-lap race.
“Tell you what,’’ crew chief Mike Bugarewicz said, “you get on the lead lap, we’ll get you one.
“Not that you need to dangle a carrot before me,’’ Stewart responded.
After told of changes the team made on a pit stop, Stewart responded before the Lap 275 restart by saying: “I don’t need to know what you did, I just got to drive it with what you did.’’
Earlier in the race as he ran outside the top 20, he told his team: “They can run all these races during the day. It is so much fun during the day.’’
“That’s what is making it fun. You get in traffic and got five guys and they’re all doing one thing different then the rest of them. It is a good time.’’
Stewart beamed after exiting the car even with the mid-pack finish. He relished his battle with eventual winner Carl Edwards when Edwards attempted to put Stewart a lap down. It took a few laps but Edwards did pass Stewart on Lap 146.
“We kept him honest,’’ Stewart said. “He got by us and cleared us and I almost got back by him. I bet you go up and down this pit road and ask those guys if I’m back, I’ll bet a bunch of them will be shaking their heads and say, ‘I don’t think he was ever gone.’ ‘’
Count Edwards among that group.
“I was real happy he was back till about five laps into that battle,’’ Edwards said with a smile.
When the day was through, spotter Bob Jeffrey told Stewart: “Good job today. First day of school.’’
Bugarewicz told Stewart he’ll do a better job working with Stewart after their first race together.
“I think this is pretty good first day,’’ Stewart said.
A thumbs up kind of day.