DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It wasn't the lesson Tony Stewart was counting on in his first race back from injury, but being involved in an a nine-car accident midway through Saturday's Sprint Unlimited proved he's well enough to withstand a hit.
Stewart's No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet was among the cars collected in the melee on Lap 36 of the 75-lap non-points race that traditionally kicks off the season. His Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch were also involved and unable to continue as were Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who crashed into his girlfriend Patrick.
The Chevrolets driven by Stewart, Gordon and Busch were crushed domino style along the outside wall, but all the drivers were able to get out on their own, a key test for Stewart who hasn't driven a race car since severely breaking his right leg in a sprint car race last August.
"Honestly, I never felt anything when I hit," Stewart said. "Probably in about an hour from now I'm sure I'll probably have a little pain but the good thing was there wasn't any initial pain. That's not the lesson I wanted to learn tonight but I feel a lot more confident knowing that hitting with the right front like that -- the leg that hit first was my right leg -- if we can get through that and make it 40 laps there I feel confident we're not going to have any issues through the weekend. That's positive out of the negative I guess."
Kenseth took responsibility for the accident on his team radio saying he thought he was clear of cars. Replays show his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota cut down across the track and collided with Joey Logano's Ford.
"I probably should've stayed in the top lane and kept going, but I was just kind of easing my way down there and had no idea Joey was that close to me and our cars got hooked together," Kenseth said. "I just feel bad all those cars got wrecked. That's not the way you want to start a season for sure."
As damaged as the cars of Stewart, Gordon and Busch looked, it was the collision between Patrick and Stenhouse that appeared worse. Patrick's bright green No. 10 GoDaddy Chevy dove low and looked to initially avoid the spinning, colliding mess in front of her, but her left tires rolled over the infield grass and the car lost control spinning back on track.
Meanwhile, Stenhouse was ricocheting off a head-on hit with Busch. And as it veered down on track he T-boned Patrick's car -- Stenhouse was unable to see because the hood on his No. 17 Nationwide Insurance Ford was bent up blocking his view.
"I had no idea what I hit," Stenhouse said. "It could have been a parked jet-dryer. I had no idea until I got into the infield care center and she was like, 'Man, you drilled me.' I was like, 'Sorry.' It's kind of tough to turn when your tires are turned different directions."
Patrick, who earned a berth in the 18-car field after winning the 2013 Daytona 500 pole, was understanding when she came out of the infield care center, but discouraged she didn't get more of a chance to race. She had run as high as third place during the first 30-lap segment.
"It was a real bummer. I was having fun, learned a lot and felt like I was running with those guys. It would have been nice to get to the end for the experience and for GoDaddy," Patrick said.
As much as her teammate Stewart was similarly hoping to log some laps and test himself, he was glad to get a race under his belt no matter the outcome.
"The crazy thing is both last night and tonight -- with the exception of leaving pit road last night (for The Sprint Unlimited first practice) -- everything has just felt it was a week ago not seven months ago (since he raced)," Stewart said. "I thought it would feel different or more surreal, but it just kind of feels like we're in that mode again and it'' good. It's not a big deal, not a big change, just work as usual."
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