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
"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
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
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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
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
"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
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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