SONOMA, Calif. – In 2015, Kyle Busch had to miss multiple races early on in the season due to an injury he suffered before the start of the Cup season. This year, Tony Stewart was forced to the sideline with an injury before the start of the season, also missing multiple events.
What do they have in common? They both ended up celebrating victories at Sonoma Raceway.
Strategy is the name of the game when it comes to racing at the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California. Teams often spend more time trying to figure out a tire or fuel strategy plan rather than working to get the car fast enough to drive to the front, and in the last 25 laps of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, Stewart’s team perfected just that.
The No.14 Code 3 Assoc/Mobil 1 Chevrolet was mired back in the field with seemingly no shot at the victory if the race stayed green, but feeling that a debris caution may be coming soon, Stewart made his way to pit road for tires and fuel. Less than a lap later, the No.14 team’s gut feeling came true, as the caution flag flew for a piece of debris on track.
The caution put Stewart in the catbird seat, as the entire field came down pit road for tires and fuel, thrusting the No.14 to the lead. The Columbus, IN native quickly got through the gears on the last couple restarts in the race, allowing him to clear out to the race lead each time.
Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. never let him get far away though. The No.78 tried mounting a charge on Stewart, but wasn’t ever able to make the pass. Hamlin then got in front of Truex Jr., and on the white flag lap, really made Stewart earn his money.
The No.11 was stalking the No.14 throughout the first couple turns, trying to figure out where to make a move. Going into Turn 7, Hamlin gave Stewart a bump and was able to slide underneath and clear to the lead. But for Stewart, it wasn’t over.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion kept the pressure on Hamlin through Turns 9 and 10, and had one last shot coming up to the final turn. Hamlin drove it in deep – too deep, and slid up the race track out of the groove, allowing Stewart to get by on the inside and drive his No.14 Chevrolet across the finish line first.
“When he went into Turn 11, I was probably more surprised than anybody,” Stewart told the media after the race. “I couldn’t believe as good as he had been braking into eleven all day, I couldn’t believe he missed the corner. They say he wheeled-hopped it. I was shocked that the door was opened like that, but you can’t crack the door open with me on the last corner on the last lap and expect me not to take it.”
Second-place finisher Denny Hamlin pointed out that he knew Stewart was going to take advantage of the hole he had left open.
“I got the rears hot, wheel-hopped it a little bit again, got out of line, and obviously gave him the inside line,” Hamlin said after the race. “Once I knew he had position and we had a wall on the other side of us, that I knew, pretty good chance, that we were going to go in the wall. I don’t think he was going to leave it to chance, a drag race coming off Turn 11.”
Sunday’s victory was Stewart’s 49th career win in 598 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, and his third-career triumph at Sonoma Raceway. The victory also snapped an 84-race win-less streak that Stewart had racked up since his last victory at Dover in 2013. But for Smoke, crossing the finish line first today meant a lot more than just breaking a win-less streak.
It has been well-documented that 2016 is Stewart’s farewell season, as he will retire and hang up his helmet after he crosses the finish line later this year at Homestead-Miami. Going out in your final season without a victory is something no one would want, especially seeing the amount of joy and closure Jeff Gordon got when he captured the checkered flag in his final season last year at Martinsville.
Today, Stewart was able to get that monkey off his back and he thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it, especially with it taking place at a track that is so special to him.
“It was nice. I got the (checkered) flag at the flag-stand and I thought well I’ll turn and come back down pit road backwards,” said Stewart post-race in the media center. “And then I was like, you know what, this is my last time here, I am going to go one more lap. And I went one more lap and I didn’t just drive the lap. I drove up there where the crowd, I did burnouts and revved the motor onto the chip, I am sure Hendrick is going to love that. But you know it was just fun to say hey thanks. This place (Sonoma) has meant a lot to me. If I don’t win another one, it’s cool to win the last one here. If it doesn’t happen again, I’ll be alright if this is the last place I win.”
Stewart’s victory on Sunday added on to the veteran’s impressive resume that has been accumulated throughout 18 years of racing. Sunday’s race also kept the ball rolling for NASCAR, who in the first part of the 2016 season continues to experience exciting racing and storybook moments.
In the words of Tony Stewart after the race, “The sport is healthy, trust me.” And in the words of a majority of the NASCAR world, whether competitors, media, or fans – “Congratulations Smoke.”