Tony Stewart will make his final appearance at Talladega Superspeedway when he races in the Alabama 500 on Sunday, and it’s still unsure how his last race will go at a place he clearly has a “love-hate” relationship.
As a NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie in 1999, Stewart came to the Alabama track and started eighth, led 10 laps and came home fifth behind some of Talladega’s best ever — Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte.
During his first 15 races at Talladega, he was a constant frontrunner, recording six runner-up finishes and 14 top-10 results.
“Anytime you can finish in the top two here it is like a win,” said Stewart in 2006 after tying Buddy Baker as the leader in second-place finishes there. “As volatile as this place can be with getting in a wreck and this or that, for us to say in the last 11 races that we’ve finished second six times is something in all reality to be proud of because this is not a race track that you can do it all on your own. So to be able to get second, I feel like we have a lot to be proud of.”
The year 2008 ended up being special for Stewart at Talladega. Starting that spring from the pole position, he won the NASCAR XFINITY Series race, then continued his prowess in the fall with his first and only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win in the Alabama 500.
“It’s one thing to get back to victory lane, but to do it at Talladega, people don’t understand what that means,” Stewart said after the race. “This is one of a few tracks I haven’t won a Cup race at and talk about one to win. I’ve wanted to win here for so long. It was very important for me to win here. Man, it’s just an awesome feeling to finally win here. We finally had one of those days where everything went right for us. I have so many friends down here (in Alabama) — Red Farmer and Donnie Allison (both of the famed Alabama Gang) and all these fans.”
Since that triumph, however, the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet has struggled with only two top-10 finishes.
His best shot at another Talladega win went awry on the last lap in the 2012 fall race. When he made contact with Michael Waltrip in between turns three and four while leading, ignitng a 25-car pile-up.
Stewart now looks to his final race at the track, in a season where he now sits just outside the top 12 drivers as the playoff rounds continue for the Sprint Cup title.
He still, though, can leave a mark in his last hurrah in Alabama.
“It’s the same (philosophy) as it always has been….drivers knowing what to do and knowing what to look for with their car,” said Stewart at Talladega in May. “It’s learning what their cars can do in practice and how to pass. Some have figured it out — to get your car with momentum without the car stalling out. Then, hope to avoid trouble.”
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