Notebook: Fellow drivers delighted to have Stewart back

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[April 23, 2016]  By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
 
 Distributed by The Sports Xchange
 
 RICHMOND, Va. -- For the first time this season, the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was the driver who was supposed to be behind the wheel.

Returning sooner than expected from a burst fracture to his L1 vertebra suffered during an offseason all-terrain vehicle accident, Tony Stewart took to the track during opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice on Friday at Richmond International Raceway, preparing for his first competition of the season in Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 (1 p.m. ET on FOX).

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was 18th quickest in the session with a lap at 124.700 mph, and his presence had an energizing effect on those readying to race against him in Stewart's final season in the series.

"Well, it's great to have our team owner and our lead driver back in the car," said SHR teammate Kurt Busch. "To have an injury outside of racing, it's always tough to go through, especially with Stewart in a retirement type of mentality the way that his emotions were going into this season. It's great to see him recover as quickly as he did, to push through the rehab side of it to get back to the car.

"This is his retirement year. He's supposed to enjoy it. He wants to go out there and do well. I think Richmond is a perfect track for the body to come back to a race, because of the lower demands physically on the body, because there's not a lot of banking here. There's not a lot of G-Force, and you have to get up on the wheel and turn the wheel, but he will be able to settle in."

Denny Hamlin also wished his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate well.

"I know it's all special memories for us to be able to go out there and compete with him," Hamlin said. "I know me coming into the Cup Series and being a teammate of his in my rookie season was awesome, but our relationship has grown so much further now that we're not teammates.

"It's a great season -- would love to see him make a Chase push, if he can, and end on a good note."

As was the case with Kyle Busch last year, Stewart can make the Chase if he wins a race and finishes in the top 30 in the standings after the 26-race regular season.

A SIGNIFICANT STEP FOR DIBENEDETTO AND BK RACING

Five days after the fact, Matt DiBenedetto was still basking in the afterglow of last Sunday's sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway.

For the record, DiBenedetto scored the best result in the five-year history of BK Racing. After the race, he celebrated with tears in his eyes. More important, however, was the effect the strong run could have on the long-term NASCAR Sprint Cup Series effort of the growing organization.

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"Obviously, that was special for the whole team," DiBenedetto said on Friday before opening Cup practice at Richmond. "I think that's what I was most excited about - not for myself, but for my team, because we're like a family and (team owner) Ron (Devine) and I are like family. We have a really close group here at BK Racing and our whole team works together so well...

"I was excited for those guys, and then when I go into the race shop this week and see them telling stories about the weekend, and they're all smiling and them coming up to me saying, 'Man, I was crying too, don't worry.' It was a really fun weekend and it meant a lot to the team and it's good momentum. If we can continue to take advantage of those good days when we have a good handling car and we hit it right, then we're going to have a good season. I'm proud of them."

MICHAEL ANNETT WRECKS IN OPENING PRACTICE

Six minutes into Friday's opening practice at Richmond, Michael Annett's No. 46 Chevrolet spun off Turn 2 and crashed into the inside wall, severely damaging the car.

With a strong chance of rain in the Friday afternoon forecast, Annett was pushing the issue, trying to post a fast lap in case qualifying was washed out and the field was ordered according to practice speeds.

"I just came off pit road trying to go out there in qualifying trim," Annett said. "Not knowing what the weather is going to do later on, we wanted to lay down a lap and get us the best starting position we could, if it (did) rain out qualifying.

"It's unfortunate. I just feel like a rookie. It's my third year in the Cup series, and to do something like that, you feel pretty stupid."

Annett had to resort to a backup car, but it wasn't ready in time to log any laps in the 85-minute practice session.

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