In the midst of his 84-race winless streak dating back to 2013, Tony Stewart has been through more than the average race car driver, moreover, the average person. From the tragedy with Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Speedway, to breaking his leg in a sprint car accident and missing more than half a season, to breaking his back in an off-road dune buggy and missing the first eight races of 2016, he’s accumulated zero victories. He also said in a press conference Friday afternoon at the track that he wasn’t really “having fun” driving in the Sprint Cup Series anymore.
But that all changed on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway in the Toyota Save-Mart 350. Smoke found victory lane, perhaps for the final time in his illustrious career, thanks to a late race strategy call. His crew chief, Mike Bugarewicz, called the No. 14 to pit road just shy of lap 90 to get four fresh tires and fill his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet with fuel. Almost immediately after Stewart exited pit lane, the caution came out, timed perfectly for Stewart.
During the caution, the rest of the field hit pit road. On lap 91, Stewart led the field to the restart on the same strategy as everyone else. Ultimately he was able to hold on for the win, his 49th since joining NASCAR in the 1990s. However, it wasn’t easy by any means.
In the closing laps, Denny Hamlin was closing the gap on Stewart. The No. 14 wheel hopped a couple corners, opening the door for Hamlin. But it wasn’t until the last lap when Hamlin nudged Stewart in turn seven, putting his No. 11 Toyota into the lead at Sonoma.
But the three-time champion wasn’t done yet. Going into the final turn, Hamlin locked up his right front tire and left the inside lane open. Stewart capitalized, door slammed Hamlin coming off turn 11 and slammed his accelerator on his way to the checkered flag to win in riveting fashion. There wasn’t one person that not happy for Smoke. Even the drivers were.
“I made mistakes the last two laps,” Smoke told FS1. “I had just a little bit too much rear brake for turn seven, and wheel-hopped it two laps in a row. I felt a nudge when I got down there and [Hamlin] knew where it was and he did the right thing doing it there. But if I could get to him, he knew what was coming.”
Stewart joked post-race that he didn’t slow down after crossing the finish line because he thought Hamlin was going to wreck him. However, the two were cordial as can be.
“He told me [after the race] he was proud of me. He knows what it means. We were teammates for a long time [at Joe Gibbs Racing], and we respect each other a lot.” he said.
Hamlin came up just short of his first career win on a road course. However, second is his best finish at this type of track, and his best finish since winning the Daytona 500.
“I thought with two or three [laps] to go [Stewart] pretty much had it, but he made a couple mistakes and allowed us to get pretty close,” Hamlin told FS1. “It was perfectly executed, but I was going through the esses knowing that I needed to get the biggest gap that I could going into [turn] 11, and when he was two back or so going into 11, I I didn’t run a low enough line in turn 11 from wheel-hopping in turn seven. I got the rears hot, wheel-hopped it a little bit again, got out of line, and obviously gave him the inside line.”
Stewart and Hamlin finished first and second, with Joey Logano, Carl Edwards,and Martin Truex Jr. rounding out the top-five. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, and Kurt Busch rounded out the top ten as well.
Some notables outside the top ten include Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 11th, Jimmie Johnson in 13th, Brad Keselowski in 15th, Matt Kenseth in 20th, and the rookie Chase Elliott in 21st. Former Sonoma winner Clint Bowyer finished dead last after an electrical fire occurred on lap four of 110.
Revered road course ace AJ Allmendinger ended up finishing 14th after a disappointing day. The finish was not indicative of where he ran all day, as he led 20 laps. However, his No. 47 team was penalized on the final round of pit stops for an uncontrolled tire violation, forcing Allmendinger to restart in the mid-30s. He would however rebound for a top-15 finish at his home track.
Kevin Harvick remains the points leader over teammate Kurt Busch by 35 points. Tony Stewart, who needs to be inside the top-30 in points to be eligible for the Chase, is currently a mere nine points from the cutoff. Barring an unforeseen disaster, Smoke will be in the playoffs.
Next week, the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series head to Daytona Beach, Fl. for the annual doubleheader on July 4 weekend. The Coke Zero 400 will be on Saturday July 2 at 7:45 p.m. ET and the Subway Firecracker 250 will be Friday July 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
For the most recent winner, Stewart, Daytona is a track that has been good to him. However, he is riding the good vibe train, and has no plans of getting off anytime soon.
“I’m going for more, just for the record,” Stewart said in the media center on a NASCAR.com live stream. “I’m not saying I’m laying down, I’m saying if that’s the only one I get this year, then I’ll be content. I think you’ve known me long enough; you guys know that I don’t lay down for anything. All you’ve got to do is just give me that little bit of hope, and I’ll run with it.”
As I said when Stewart announced he’d be missing the start of his farewell season, Smoke Will Rise. And boy, has he.
Both races at DIS will be broadcast on NBC and NBCSN, as FOX’s NASCAR season has come and gone. NBC and their family of networks will carry all remaining NSCS & NXS races in 2016, with the NCWTS being on FS1.