-- WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Tony Stewart's day ended earlier than he had wanted, but he had few complaints about his last-place finish in the Sprint Cup race Sunday at Watkins Glen.
Stewart completed 56 laps in the race, which occurred on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy in which Stewart accidentally struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. The accident took place on the eve of last year's race at The Glen.
The crowd erupted in cheers for Stewart when he was introduced Sunday, and he was smiling and laughing as he met with fans prior to the event. He started third -- his best starting spot of the year -- and ran in or near the top 10 for much of the race before a likely broken seal let all the rear-end grease out of an axle and ended his day.
"[The crowd reception] was really good all the way around," said Stewart, who missed the 2013 race at Watkins Glen because of a broken leg suffered in a sprint-car accident and then the 2014 race because of the tragedy. "[The weekend] was as good as it could be.
"I'm happy to get to race here today. That is something I've been looking forward to and I'm happy about the couple of weeks we've got coming up."
Stewart politely declined to comment about a wrongful death lawsuit filed Friday by the Ward family, who seek unspecified damages and claim Stewart's actions resulted in the 20-year-old driver's death. Stewart was not criminally charged, and Ward was found to have marijuana in his system at the time of his death, according to the Ontario County (N.Y.) district attorney.
A three-time Sprint Cup champion mired in one of his worst on-track seasons, Stewart didn't seem distracted by the anniversary nor the lawsuit. When his crew chief, Chad Johnston, asked if he was using the driver-adjustable track bar -- a new tool added this year -- Stewart told him: "I've been working it the whole race, bud. You'd be proud of me."
"Normally he has to remind me that that adjustment is in the car," Stewart said afterward. "I never thought I would use it on a road course. But I played with it quite a bit."
Stewart fell to 26th in the standings, but it was the third consecutive week he has seen improved performance.
"The way our season's been, we've picked up. ... I feel like we're starting to gain some momentum," he said. "It won't show it at the end of the day on the results, but I feel good about it."