Yellow rookie stripes hadn’t appeared on a Sprint Cup car driven by Tony Stewart since the 1999 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
But Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, 17 seasons and 558 starts later, Stewart started his second race of the 2016 with the bright signifier of inexperience on his rear bumper.
Stewart hasn’t forgotten how to drive a racecar, but he’s probably forgotten more about it than Ty Dillon has learned through his 152 starts in NASCAR’s top three series.
Dillon was the reason the rookie stripes were on Stewart’s car. While Stewart started the GEICO 500, the three-time series champion stepped out of the car during the race’s first caution at Lap 52 to hand it over to Dillon. The last time rookie stripes appeared on the No. 14 was when Austin Dillon substituted for Stewart in two races in 2013, with one coming at Talladega.
After missing the first eight races of the season recovering from a back injury, Sunday’s move at a track known for violent wrecks was the last precautionary measure for Stewart before he returns full-time next week at Kansas Speedway.
“It sucks to be honest,” Stewart told Fox of relinquishing his car to someone else. “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.”
While Dillon qualified the car, Stewart started the race from the rear. A speeding penalty on Lap 38 put Stewart in position to be lapped right before the first caution of the race on Lap 51. He received the free pass on that caution and was back on the lead lap. That caution also set up the driver switch on pit road.
“I really appreciate Ty (Dillon),” Stewart said. “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 got the Lucky Dog and kept him on the lead lap. The change went pretty smooth – no drama there.”
But there was a little drama. The team was called for too many team members in the pit box during the change, which the team had gotten down to one minute while practicing in the garage.
“It’s a little amped up when you have a bunch of TV cameras and all the fans are watching you, and you’re doing it live on pit road,” Dillon said after finishing sixth. “Just made sure I took my time and was safe in the car. That was the first thing that was important to me. They did a good job of letting me know where the pace car was coming. So it worked out well, and I’m glad I did because we got a good finish for these guys.
Dillon, driving in his 13th Cup race though Stewart would be credited with the result, brought the No. 14 steadily through the field, narrowly avoiding multiple-car wrecks.
The result was the best for the No. 14 since Stewart finished sixth in the spring Bristol race last season.
“For my first (Cup race at Talladega), that was about as crazy as I wanted it to be,” Dillon said. “I had to dodge a couple of close calls, but we brought our Bass Pro Chevy home up front in a good position. To do this for Tony, he’s giving me such an opportunity for my career and Bass Pro Shops for letting me drive this race car. I hope I showed a lot of people what I can do in these things and I’m only going to get better and keep driving hard.”
Dillon’s performance helped move Stewart up two spots in the points to 38th. He must have a win and be 30th in the points to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But barring an unfortunate turn, the rest of the season is solely in Stewart’s hands, finally.
“Good news is this is last time we have to do it,” Stewart said.