NASCAR: Tony Stewart on the comeback trail

It has been months since Tony Stewart has been able to spend time reflecting on a strong performance on a NASCAR race track.

He got a welcome respite last weekend at Martinsville, Va.

Stewart was one of three drivers who elected not to pit during the final caution and took the lead briefly near the end of Sunday’s Goody’s 500.

He was quickly overtaken by teams on new tires but still finished fourth – his first top-10 finish since July and first top five since March.

“I think if we were in that position 100 times over that is same call we would do,” a visibly excited and upbeat Stewart said after the race. “It felt like it was the right thing for this team.

“I didn’t feel like it was a gamble. I thought we gave ourselves the best shot to race for the win. Fourth never felt so good.”

The fourth place equaled his season-best finish at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in March.

“It’s been way too long since we’ve been in this position,” Stewart said. “I felt like we ran solid all day. We didn’t stay in the top five all day, and we didn’t stay in the top 10 all day.

“We had to overcome some adversity, but I still felt like we ran our race. We were aggressive when we needed to be aggressive. We used give-and-take when we needed to use give-and-take.

“Some other guys paid the price for not doing that.”

Racing, let alone a win, seemed in question for Stewart for several weeks this summer.

At a dirt track in upstate New York on Aug. 9, a sprint car driven by Stewart struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was walking on the track while the race was under caution.

Stewart elected to sit out the next three Cup races. He returned to action Aug. 31 at Atlanta, and on Sept. 24 a grand jury declined to indict him in the incident.

In the weeks since, Stewart and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team have been slowly trying to regain some semblance of consistent performance on the track.

Stewart dedicated the welcomed strong finish Sunday to his fans and others who have stood behind him this summer.

“Most of all, our fans,” he said. “They have been plowing a tough road for the last 18 months and this top five is for the fans more than anybody.”

Could there be even better days on the horizon?

Stewart won his only pole of the season in April at Texas Motor Speedway, and the Sprint Cup Series returns there this weekend for Sunday’s AAA 500. He finished 10th in that race and has two wins and six top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 24 starts at Texas.

If Stewart is getting more comfortable on the track, that may bode well, particularly at Texas.

“You have to be comfortable, or you’re not going to go fast,” Stewart said of the 1.5-mile paved, banked quad-oval. “The more comfortable I am, the faster we go.”