It was better late than never for Tony Stewart in Thursday’s Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) event at the Stewart-owned Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio.
But the man known as “Smoke” unfortunately still came up short.
Stewart had arguably the greatest single race performance in SRX history – being the first driver in the three-year-old series’ history to win both 25-lap heat races AND the 75-lap main event, all in the same evening.
Unfortunately for the three-time NASCAR Cup champ, he began his run for a second SRX title—he also won the inaugural SRX title in 2021 – a bit too late in the course of the season (the fifth race in the six-race series) and will come up short likely to Ryan Newman, who can clinch the SRX crown in next Thursday’s series finale at Lucas Oil Speedway outside Springfield, Ohio.
Stewart appeared to barely break a sweat in all three of Thursday’s races. Virtually every time he got in the lead, he literally cruised to the checkered flag.
Of course, that’s not really a surprise as the co-owner of Stewart Haas Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series purchased Eldora Speedway nearly 20 years ago and has logged countless miles in both competition and practice on the little dirt bullring since then.
What’s more, it was Stewart’s 11th career win in SRX competition (either heat races or main events), and he’s now won four of the five SRX races that have been contested on dirt tracks.
Deegan Scores Breakthrough Runner-Up Finish
Next to Stewart winning the ESPN Thursday Night Thunder, the biggest surprise of the night was the runner-up finish of budding NASCAR driver Hailie Deegan.
“That’s one thing people don’t realize, Hailie Deegan is a hell of a dirt track racer,” Stewart said. “If she gets to second, she’s going to put on pressure. I just had to try to get some clean laps on restarts, get in a rhythm and get going.”
Deegan is one of seven drivers who are racing full-time for the SRX title. Even though she’s mathematically out of contention for the championship, she definitely has improved her ability on both pavement and now dirt in the SRX series.
Deegan received a huge standing ovation and tons of cheers from fans after the race ended.
“Oh man, I don’t know what’s happened the last couple of weeks or what’s changed, but I feel a lot more confidence the last couple of months,” Deegan said with a broad smile on her face. “I feel like these last two or three races, it’s coming (together) and I’m starting to get those finishes, getting more speed and it’s all coming together.
“I’ve been working real hard the last couple of weeks and it’s really paying off.”
Deegan earned her runner-up showing in a difficult manner: she wrecked in the opening heat race and was forced to go to a back-up car for the remainder of the evening. Even though it was a totally strange ride, she took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and held off every other driver – with the exception of Stewart.
“Man, when I heard ‘five laps to go,’ that felt like the longest five laps of my life,’” Deegan said with a laugh.
Heading into the season finale at the Ken Schrader-owned track next weekend in Missouri, the title is Newman’s to lose. Having finished third behind Stewart and Deegan in Thursday’s race, Newman all but has the title sewn up and likely can clinch things with strong showings in the first two heat races, meaning he can be crowned champ even before the final main event.
Technically, both Brad Keselowski and Marco Andretti still have mathematical chances to overtake Newman in the Show Me State, but it’s very unlikely.
Capps Shines in SRX Debut
One of the most inspiring performances of the night was the effort put in by three-time NHRA Funny Car champion Ron Capps.
Competing in his first race on dirt since 2012 (although he prepped for Thursday’s event by racing on his computer simulator), Capps did the straight-line community proud, proving that drag racers can indeed turn left when they have to.
Capps led early in Heat Race No. 1, and was bouncing back in Heat Race No. 2 before he hit the wall on Lap 6. He wrecked with 15 laps to go, losing control and spinning around, but unfortunately he wrecked with 15 laps to go, losing control and spinning around.
The SRX team made quick repairs, but Capps’ car gave up the ghost with five laps left when his car wouldn’t turn, officially ending his night..
Still, the Southern California resident had a heck of a lot of fun.
“My roundy-round stuff leaves a little bit to be desired,” Capps joked. “Man, this is fun, I’m so out of my comfort zone. It’s crazy.”
NOTES: One of the biggest crashes in SRX history occurred in the first heat race that involved six of the 12 cars in the starting field. Austin Dillon’s car blew up and he collected the rides of Matt Kenseth, Chase Briscoe, Deegan, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti. While Deegan and Andretti were able to jump into backup cars, Briscoe’s first-ever appearance in SRX competition was short but certainly not sweet. … Only seven cars finished the first heat race, the fewest cars to finish a heat race in SRX history. … It was a bit disappointing that ESPN shifted the start of the race to ESPN2 so as to allow completion of the Little League World Series game. The race was shifted back to the main ESPN channel about halfway through the event. … SRX’s six-race 2023 schedule has seemingly flown by, with the finale for 2023 coming next Thursday at the Ken Schrader-owned Lucas Oil Speedway, just outside Springfield, Missouri.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski