Three laps later, Stewart claimed his second top-five finish in as many weeks and his third in four races. It was the first time Stewart has had consecutive top fives since March 2014 when he did so at Bristol Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway.
“I’m happy, I mean this is the kind of day we wanted here, and we are getting close,” Stewart told NBCSN.
He is 28th in the points standings three races after winning at Sonoma Raceway and is eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup after missing the first eight races due to a back injury.
Though Stewart’s average running spot during the 301-lap race was 12.9, four cautions in the final 36 laps allowed the Stewart-Haas Racing team to move into the top five during restarts.
“I’d say the last three restarts were pretty intense,” Stewart said. “This track has always kind of had a history of one lane prevailing over the others … you’ve got two lanes wide of cars that are trying to get to one lane every restart.
“It seemed like it took a couple laps after the restarts for the track to rubber back in, and I think it was the best tire that Goodyear has brought here that I can remember in the 18 years I’ve been here. You could race all over the racetrack today, and it didn’t seem like the aero situation was near as bad as what it has been in the past, so I was really happy with Goodyear brought.”
Stewart was also happy with how rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz handled the weekend and improved his car’s performance from Saturday when Stewart was 16th fastest in final practice. The three-time champion didn’t stick around Loudon following practice, instead, he flew to Eldora Speedway, the dirt track he owns in Rossburg, Ohio, to attend the World of Outlaws King’s Royal event.
“Mike was working all night, so my phone would vibrate in my pocket, and it’s 11 at night and he’s got a question still that he wants feedback on, and that’s the stuff I like about him,” Stewart said. “I mean, he’s a workaholic, and I guarantee you he watched the entire race last night. The night before the race he watches every previous race there and just kind of watches what happens.
“For a guy that’s not been the head guy on the pit box for very long, he’s got a lot of savvy about what’s going on there.
The calls and moves made by Bugarewicz, which included taking four tires on the team’s last pit stop, had Stewart sixth and on the outside on the final restart with 11 laps to go.
“We were able to start picking our way through there, and that was really good,” Stewart said.
It led to Stewart’s best finish at the “Magic Mile” since he won there in 2011, a year that he finished in the top two of both New Hampshire races. Stewart believes the team is more relaxed as a result of his win at Sonoma, the first in his final Sprint Cup season.
“Everybody was kind of on edge because everybody wants this last year to be good and we want to run good in this last year,” Stewart said. “So for Mike and I to get caught up with each other, we’ve really had to work hard at it, and I think he’s done a great job, but I think Sonoma really helped kind of relax everybody and gets us in the mode of racing again and not really worrying about what we were looking like out there.”
Stewart is well aware that the Cup series will return to NHMS for the Chase for the Sprint Cup when the “atmosphere is different” at the 1-mile track in September.
“Both Mike and I feel like we’ve got some things to gain on,” Stewart said. “I hope everybody feels like what they’ve got is good enough, but I feel like we have room to gain from it, and he’s the kind of guy that won’t stop until he figures it out.”