Tony Stewart catches break at Talladega, hands over wheel to Ty Dillon on Lap 52

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – Tony Stewart hopped out of his No. 14 Chevrolet on Lap 52 at Talladega Superspeedway, just after catching a huge break in the Geico 500.

In his second race since missing the first two months of the 2016 season with a fractured back, Stewart started at the rear after relief driver Ty Dillon qualified his car.

Stewart stayed at the rear in the early stages, hoping to avoid a wreck and turn the wheel over to Dillon under yellow.

But the caution flag didn’t fly, necessitating green-flag pit stops for fuel.

Stewart stopped on Lap 40 but had to pit again after being penalized for speeding on exit.

The three-time Sprint Cup champion fell a lap down but regained the lead lap when the caution flew for a crash involving Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto.

Stewart ducked back into the pits, and the team swapped him for Dillon, who restarted in 34th  on Lap 58 as the last car on the lead lap.

“It sucks to be honest,” Stewart told Fox Sports. “I know why we got to do it, but it sucks. It still sucks that you have to do it but if I hadn’t broke my back at the end of January; we wouldn’t be in this situation.

“Good news is this is last time we have to do it and I am back in next week (at Kansas Speedway). I really appreciate Ty. He’s been a rock star through this whole thing and especially this weekend. He’s done all the heavy lifting, and I just got in to ride around for 50 laps and turn it over to him. Fortunately, we kept him on the lead lap.  The change went pretty smooth. No drama there, so we got him so he could go out there and race now.”

Even better news: Ty Dillon drove Stewart’s No. 14 car to a sixth-place finish. Because Stewart is scored as the driver of record for starting the race, it will go down in NASCAR record books as Stewart’s best finish since finishing sixth at Bristol on April 19, 2015.

In a prerace interview on Fox Sports, Stewart said he felt better than last year since his back surgery, saying “I think I learned my back was more messed up” before the ATV accident that left him with a burst fracture of his L1 vertebrae.