Tony Stewart smiling again after fifth, but his thoughts are with Bryan Clauson and family

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – In the bright sunshine of a late Sunday afternoon at Watkins Glen International, it was all smiles for Tony Stewart after exiting the No. 14 Chevrolet.

The three-time series champion joked about benefiting from the overly aggressive tactics of his peers, beamed about his team grinding out its fourth top five in five races and bantered about a NASCAR.com reporter’s forearm-length postage stamp tattoo.

“That’s awesome,” Stewart said. “I might borrow that idea if it’s all right and do Columbus, Indiana, on it. That way they know where to send me back if something happens.”

But his mood turned serious when asked about how difficult it was to climb into the No. 14 Chevrolet a few hours earlier while burdened with the knowledge of good friend Bryan Clauson clinging to life after a wicked crash in a Midget race Saturday night.

“It was hard to start the day today in the car,” he said. “It sucks when it’s anybody in racing. It’s hard when you lose them, but it’s even worse when they’re somebody as close to you as Bryan was.

“I feel for Lauren (Clauson’s fiancée) today and Bryan’s parents and his sister, and I hope to be able to see them soon, but just thinking about them more than anything right now.”

Clauson ran for the 2010 USAC Silver Crown championship with Tony Stewart Racing, one of several teams he won with during a storied open-wheel career. He also is a three-time Indianapolis 500 starter and ran in the NASCAR Xfinity Series from 2007-08 with Chip Ganassi Racing (several in the NASCAR industry, including Stewart, expressed their support of Clauson before Sunday’s race).

“Terrible thoughts,” Stewart said when asked about Clauson’s crash in Belleville, Kansas. “It’s a tragedy. That kid drove for us for a long time and did a great job. I don’t care what happened, no matter how bad his day was, he always found a way to smile with it. Him and Lauren being engaged; kid had such a bright future.”

Stewart would be seeing many in the sprint car community soon, heading Sunday night from Watkins Glen to the Knoxville Nationals in Iowa to begin the last off-week of his final season in Sprint Cup.

His fifth top five in 14 starts this season came in a race when he avoided trouble that found many other veterans, particularly in the closing laps.

“The spotter was telling me pairs of guys that were mad at each other,” he said. “I was like, ‘For once I’m not mad at anybody with six laps to go.’ So that was a nice position to be. When you get 10 to go like that, you get restarts, it’s going to be pretty hectic and guys are going to be running into each other and pushing each other out of the way. I’m pretty happy to come out of it with a top five.”

He gave much of the credit to rookie crew chief Mike Bugarweicz, who crafted a solid strategy after Stewart fell all the way to 32nd at the midpoint after serving a stop-and-go penalty for missing the inner loop of the track.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Stewart said. “I faded a little at the beginning and had some problems with our brakes getting hot at the first run there. We kind of just stuck to our strategy, and I’m so impressed with Buga. He’s so good at figuring out the strategy.

“He’s real good at being able to … analyze where we’re at and what we need to do to get where we need to be. I’m pretty excited about how good he is at calling a race like that.”

After missing the first eight races with a fractured back, Stewart has climbed from 40th to 26th in the points and is solidly in the playoffs (thanks to his Sonoma victory) with four races remaining in the regular season. He is ahead of nine drivers who have started every race.

“We just keep being consistent, even on days we don’t have a top 10 or top five car,” he said. “We’re finding ways to make top fives out of it. That’s what you’ve got to do in the Chase. You’ve got to be able to make something out of nothing, and these guys are doing a great job out of that.”