-- RICHMOND, Va. -- It was a big week for Tony Stewart, who made his presence known on and off the track.
Within a 24-hour period, Stewart learned that he had recovered sufficiently from a spinal fracture suffered in a sand buggy accident in early February to make his 2016 season debut. He also criticized NASCAR's lug nut observation policy at an event for his sponsor Mobil 1, garnering a $35,000 fine that his fellow members on the NASCAR Driver Council quickly agreed to pay.
A 19th-place finish in the Toyota Owners 400 was nothing for the two-time Sprint Cup Series champion to get excited about, but being back in a car no doubt put Stewart back in his happy place.
Stewart, who missed the first eight races of the Cup season, has been granted a waiver to be eligible for the Chase playoffs if he can win a race and finish in the top 30 in the point standings.
Stewart showed little sign of rust despite not driving a stock car since the 2015 season finale in November.
He said an 80-minute practice session on Saturday morning was the key to getting his groove back.
"That was probably the biggest thing I needed to do," he said. "At the very end of the session, when it was probably the peak temperature for the session, guys were moving around, I got a chance to get around guys and find out what I could do in traffic. I feel like I learned enough yesterday to remember what to do inside the car.
"It felt like an old pair of shoes," he continued. "I've been out for five months but it didn't feel like it. It took about 10 laps on Friday to kind of get reacclimated, but other than that, it's the same race car I was driving last year for the most part."
Stewart told his crew over the radio that he was having fun. He apologized for going a lap down to leader Carl Edwards after a spirited defense of his position.
The burly Hoosier is often chastised for his less-than-athletic physique, but Stewart was in race shape for his first start of the season.
"Line them up again and let's run another -- hell, make it 800 laps!" he said. "Line them up and I'll run 800 laps right now and not have a problem.
"There will be a bunch of these guys falling out of the seat if they had to run 800 more laps, but I will not be one of them."
That said, due to the danger of restrictor-plate racing and the chance of reinjuring his back, Stewart plans to hand his car off to relief driver Ty Dillon after starting next week's Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Stepping out of the seat is unlikely to change Stewart. He's going to continue to voice his opinion and fight for what he believes in, as typified by his stance against NASCAR's relaxed enforcement of monitoring lug nut installation.
NASCAR reacted swiftly and severely to Stewart's remarks, and Sunday morning, he sought to clarify his position.
"I understand what NASCAR is trying to do, but I'm always going to speak my mind," he told Fox Sports. "I don't know what the key word or key phrase was that got me fined, but when it comes to safety, I'm not going to hold back. That's $35,000 well invested if it makes it safer for these guys. I think they're doing something different today with rules on trying to keep everybody making sure we get enough lug nuts on the cars.
"I think NASCAR have done an awesome job with safety," he added. "This is one thing we need to look at. It wasn't saying they're not doing their job. I felt like they dropped the ball on this one thing. They're doing a good job, they're looking at it and will address it and make it right.
Xfinity Series: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins for himself
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won 24 Xfinity Series races in his career, but he had never won for his own JR Motorsports team until Saturday.
Earnhardt dropped to third place behind Brennan Poole and JRM's Justin Allgaier, but he made an aggressive restart on the 133rd lap that nudged Poole's tire-spinning car into Allgaier's, sending Allgaier spinning and sweeping in half a dozen cars. After a lengthy cleanup, Earnhardt prevailed over Ty Dillon, who nabbed the $100,000 Dash for Cash bonus.
"When [Poole] spun the tires, I had to go to the inside," Earnhardt said. "I tried not to drive up into him -- I don't think I got into him. They just kind of came together up there and had a heck of a wreck.
Earnhardt expressed his delight for the crew at JRM, which he founded in 1998 as a marketing company. The team began fielding cars in NASCAR's feeder series in 2002 and has scored a total of 28 Xfinity Series wins. Earnhardt uses the team to help develop young drivers, but occasionally steps in to drive a race.
His sister Kelley runs the team on a day-to-day basis.
"I don't run the Xfinity Series but a couple times a year, so the chances to win are few and far between," Earnhardt said. "All our stuff has been really fast here so this is a race that I asked if I could run. I've always felt pretty good here."
Allgaier, who ranks seventh in the Xfinity standings, is the team's lead full-time driver.
"We're a little bit behind the Gibbs [Joe Gibbs Racing] cars at some of the big tracks, the mile-and-a-halfs," Earnhardt said. "But I think at the short tracks we have an opportunity to come and compete. We'll keep working hard and that's all you can do. To win the race today gets the guys excited, because to continually finish right behind them every week beats the guys up at the shop."
Earnhardt admitted that it was nice to get a win, even if it was in Xfinity rather than the Sprint Cup Series, where his last win came in the fall at Phoenix International Raceway.
"It does a little something to your ego," he said. "Every time you kind of come close or go a weekend without getting a win, you get a bruise to your ego a little bit, maybe a little piece of your confidence chipped away.
"So anytime you can get back to Victory Lane, even if it's in a Truck or an Xfinity car, it makes you feel like, 'Hey, I know what I'm doing. I just need to keep calm. Things are working well, we just need to stay the course. We're going to make it happen.' It definitely calms you down a little bit and builds that confidence back a little bit.
"It's not 400 laps in a Cup race, but it still helps you understand that you can get the job done."