Bob PockrassNASCARClose• NASCAR writer for ESPN.com
• 2009, 2013 NMPA Writer of the Year
• More than 25 years experience covering motorsports
SONOMA, Calif. — Even Tony Stewart didn’t think he would win Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Sonoma as he led the field to green on a restart with 14 laps to go.
The old Tony Stewart could win. He could muscle a car — will it to Victory Lane with such determination and ability that few race car drivers could match.
That was the old Tony Stewart, the one before he broke his leg in a sprint car accident in August 2013. The one before the sprint car tragedy that sapped him emotionally in June 2014 when the car he was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at a New York dirt track. The once invincible Tony Stewart who found out just how fragile he was when a hard landing in a dune buggy broke his back in January.
Tony Stewart snapped an 84-race winless streak that dated to 2013 with a popular victory Sunday on the road course at Sonoma Raceway.
The 2011 Sprint Cup champion Stewart would win this race — you know, the one who went from a mediocre regular season to winning five of the final 10 races to capture the title. Indeed, the driver who last won at Dover in June 2013 would win this Toyota/Save Mart 350 here at Sonoma Raceway.
“Listening to people say I’m old and washed up — I know how old I am, I know I haven’t ran good for the last three years, but I’ve felt like if we got things right that it was still there,” the 45-year-old Stewart said after Sunday’s race. “We had a restart with 14 laps to go on an 11-turn track, and I missed three corners. I don’t know how many corners that is, doing the math, but it’s, what, 160 corners, 150 some-odd corners [actually 154], and I screwed up three of them.
“The rest of the time, I felt like I was the Tony Stewart that has won here and led laps here in the past.”
Stewart took the Sonoma Raceway fans and the national television audience back in time, holding off a hungry group of Sprint Cup racers, until Denny Hamlin nudged by him in Turn 7 on the final lap. Hamlin knew what was coming in turn in Turn 11 — the final turn — and made a mistake, taking the corner way too wide while trying to create a big enough gap to avoid the Stewart retaliation.
Stewart stormed to the inside to make the pass for the win, snapping an 84-race winless streak, which doesn’t even include the 26 races he has missed since his last victory. More importantly, he won in what he has already declared is his final season of Sprint Cup racing. He can’t go back on the decision — his team already has hired Clint Bowyer as a replacement — and he doesn’t want to, as he quipped he would return to an unhappy state next week in Daytona’s restrictor-plate race.
“I’m sure if he could go on, if he could keep winning, he would want to keep racing,” said Gene Haas, who gave Stewart half of his struggling Sprint Cup team in 2009 to get him on board. “But it’s hard. It’s a hard sport.
“He’s one of the greatest racers in NASCAR of all time. He’s smooth. He doesn’t make mistakes. He’s fast.”
“You haven’t seen that in a few years,” Haas continued, “and I’m sure that that grates on him. But this is just a vindication that he has a natural talent, and that talent is something that is still there. You can see it. And I think he feels great, and I hope this day lasts for the rest of the year.”
Stewart averaged a finish of 16.1 in the races he did compete in during 2013, 20.0 in 2014 and 24.8 in 2015. He had shown signs of improvement in 2016, but there has been nothing consistent. A potentially good run in Pocono ended up with a crash of his own making, and then he posted a seventh-place finish two weeks ago at Michigan.
“He had that fire in his belly and did what he had to do at the end to win the race,” said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick, winner of the 2014 Cup championship. “He had to earn it. You get in such a slump — there is a lot of pressure on you when you’re doing good, let alone for when you have all the things going on that he had going on.
“It’s going to be a lot of weight lifted off.”
It appeared it would be just another frustrating day for Stewart, who was running 16th when his team decided to pit him a lap before the caution came out with 24 laps remaining as NASCAR had talked about debris on the track, found himself in the lead as everyone else pitted.
No one thought the Stewart, who last won at Sonoma in 2005, had a great shot at the win. Now he has a shot at winning the championship as he sits just nine points out of 30th with 10 races remaining in the regular season to get to 30th and earn a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“He drove today like he drove in 2011,” said his father, Nelson Stewart. “Amazing. … His entire racing life I’ve been amazed by things at different times and you never know when something is going to happen.
“Today it happened twice. It happened on that three-wide pass [during the race] and it happened on the last lap. I’m all messed up [emotionally] right now.”
Stewart didn’t appear as emotional; his first thought about winning didn’t center on himself.
“My guys have been through this whole disastrous roller coaster the last three or four years and never backed down,” Stewart said. “They’ve never quit on me. There’s days I’ve quit on myself and they’re the guys that send you text messages and call you when you get home like, ‘Hey, this isn’t over.’
“I’m proud for them, and it meant more for me to get it for them than for myself.”
Among the people who probably have texted Stewart was his spotter Bob Jeffrey, who has worked with Stewart for several years.
“It lets you know what kind of champion he really is,” Jeffrey said. “He’s always been a winner. A great driver and a respectful driver on the race track. It’s been a long three years to this point from when he got hurt.
“He went through a lot of obstacles.”
Without the three-time Sprint Cup champion who has won 49 times, the Sprint Cup garage could look quite different. Haas CNC Racing struggled as a two-car team until Haas gave Stewart half the team to come in and have his people manage it and attract sponsorship.
It now operates four cars, with three most likely getting into the 2016 Chase with Harvick, Stewart and Kurt Busch.
Stewart also has championship sprint-car and dirt-track racing teams, where drivers such as Kyle Larson have made names for themselves and now race in Sprint Cup. That love of sprint cars is apparent, so when Stewart in frustration said Friday he wanted to run cars that made him happy and stock cars don’t make him happy, it didn’t surprise many in the garage. They already knew that.
“It’s really, really cool,” Larson said. “I know everybody read that article where he said he was miserable in a Cup car and a couple of days later to see him win was awesome.
“He just needs that little bit of spark within himself. I think the rest of the year is going to be pretty awesome for him.”
It might be hard to top the awesomeness of the final lap of Sonoma and the fairy tale ending, one that Hamlin said was the result of him making a mistake on tires too hot to have enough grip for him to take the inside.
“I knew I needed a big gap,” Hamlin said. “I didn’t know if he would physically spin us out. I thought there was a very good chance of it because that’s his opportunity to get in the Chase, ultimately. I mean, how many more chances is he going to have?
“I think this is by far the best he’s run all year, and he’s in his final season, so his give-a-s— factor is probably really low, to be honest with you.”
Stewart said he didn’t think of taking Hamlin out. Only of taking what he was given, just what Hamlin did to him. Stewart respects his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and if there is anything that has stayed consistent about Stewart, it’s his living to a code. His code? Don’t block and race with respect.
“I was shocked that the door was open like that,” Stewart said. “You can’t crack the door open with me on the last corner of the last lap and expect me to not take it. I’ll kick the door in or drive a bulldozer through it to keep it open.
“When you’re in a scenario like that, I don’t know if I’m going to get another scenario or opportunity to win another race the rest of the year. … I wasn’t going to be cordial in the exit of the corner and I roughed him up pretty good. If it has been a street fight, he’d have had two black eyes after that. I used him up pretty hard.”
Stewart has 20 races left in his Sprint Cup career. They could be just as frustrating as many of the races the last three years. Or they could go like the final 10 races of 2011, where Stewart turned a mediocre season into a championship one.
“It could turn out to be 2011 all over again,” Nelson Stewart said. “Who knows? If he does not get another win, I think he’ll be content with this one knowing he’s competitive again. I think he’ll be perfectly OK with that.””
His son concurred.
“I’ll be all right if this is the last place I win one,” Stewart said. “I’m going for more, just for the record. … 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.”