There's something about dirt racing during the SRX series that brings out the best in Tony Stewart. After an up-and-down year, Stewart put it all together at I-55 Raceway Saturday night. His victory in the main event was the third in three career dirt races in the series as the No. 14 was untouchable despite a flurry of late restarts in the last 10 laps.
"This place is pretty awesome," Stewart said of the series' first race at the 0.33-mile dirt track. "You aren't going to find fans that are any more diehard in this country for late models, modifieds and sprint cars than here at Pevely."
Was the night enough to get Stewart back in the championship chase? Here are five takeaways from the race as the SRX Series now heads toward its 2022 finale at Sharon Speedway this Saturday night on CBS at 8 p.m. ET.
Tony Stewart did almost everything right
You can score a maximum of 49 points in any SRX event. Stewart came up one short of perfection, running second in Heat 1 and winning Heat 2 before cruising to victory in the main event. He led every lap in the feature, starting from the pole and was often out in front by a comfortable margin within 1-2 laps of a restart.
His success cut a 31-point deficit by roughly half heading into the Sharon Speedway finale. In that race, Stewart will have Chase Elliott and the Blaneys to contend with, Cup veterans capable of giving him a run for his money. But it's easy to see Stewart having an impressive night all over again. In nine career SRX dirt track races (including Heats), he's now won six of them and never finished lower than fourth.
That gives Stewart a path to a potential second straight SRX title. What a comeback that would be after two finishes of 10th or worse in the first four main events.
Strong night for Hailie ends in heartbreak
Hailie Deegan had all the looks of a contender early on at Pevely. Her No. 38 was fourth and eighth in the first two heats, setting the 20-year-old up for success with a fourth-place starting spot in the main event.
For a minute, it looked like Deegan had the second-best car on the track other than Stewart, gaining positions and engaged in a furious battle with Ernie Francis, Jr. behind him. That's when an overheating issue led to a lengthy caution flag, trapping Deegan in the pits with a problem the SRX crew took several laps to fix. By the time racing resumed, she had lost too much time and track position to make a comeback, winding up the night a disappointing ninth.
After three top-5 finishes on the dirt last year, including second in the Knoxville main event, it's not what everyone had hoped for with the NASCAR prospect at a critical point in her development with Ford Performance.
Marco Andretti loses the battle…but wins the war?
Andretti had a rough start to the night in Pevely, getting caught up in a Heat 2 incident that left him failing to finish in 12th. With a wounded car, you wondered if he would simply limp around or even start the main event.
Instead, Andretti made a spirited charge, letting chaos unfold around him as those numerous late wrecks left him gaining track position on every restart. Once again, it was nemesis Stewart standing in his way at the finish, but a runner-up effort was still his third straight in the main event. It was smart racing for him down the stretch while becoming the favorite to win the 2022 SRX championship.
"This place is so fun," Andretti said afterwards. "I was taking care of the tires, but then we went yellow for [Hailie] Deegan for so long that I had the better tires at the end but ran out of time. I think if I wasn't thinking about the championship, I would have had a better go at Tony [Stewart] at the end."
Hard-fought finish for Ryan Newman
Newman's car looked like a modified by the end of the race with all the work done on the No. 39. 10th in Heat 1 after an incident with Paul Tracy, it looked unlikely he'd be able to run at full speed going forward.
Yet here we were, in the closing laps at Pevely and somehow, Newman's wounded car made it back to the front. While a divebomb for second fell short, Newman will gladly take fourth to remain a SRX title contender heading to Sharon.
"We either got hit or hit everything but the pace car," Newman said. "A decent points night. Just never got any kind of track position. I was on the outside of (Paul) Tracy and I guess he didn't see me and ran me into the fence, knocked the nose off me and killed his night. Wasn't my fault. He has a mirror and didn't use it."
Odds 'n' ends
- Tough night for Paul Tracy. Multiple incidents throughout all three races led to no better run than eighth, snapping a streak of five straight top-5 finishes entering I-55 Raceway.
- More than 10 incidents made it a tough night of racing after the past two events (Stafford and Nashville) were relatively clean affairs. Multiple cars ended the night without tails, fenders, and hoods as this race had the most contact of the season by a country mile.
- Give a call to Ernie Francis, Jr. who wasn't even supposed to be scheduled to run this event. He got as high as second during the main before the wrecks shuffled the running order. A sixth-place finish was easily his best during a difficult second year for him at SRX.
- There was hope I-55 co-owner Kenny Schrader would give Stewart a run for his money and he did early, winning the first Heat to become a SRX winner at age 67. Schrader hung in there during the main, climbing to third during the wild ending.