Tony Stewart Ends 84-Race Winless Streak With Victory At Sonoma Racewayby Hunter Thomas June 26, 2016 0 comments
SONOMA, Calif. – Tony Stewart held off Denny Hamlin at Sonoma Raceway to win the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Sunday, ending an 84-race winless streak.
Prior to Sunday, the last time that Stewart was in Victory Lane dates all the way back to Dover on June 2, 2013. A lot has gone on in the Indiana native’s life on and off the track since then, but most recently, he sustained a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra in an ATV accident during the off-season. As a result, Stewart missed the first eight races this season, which happens to be his last year competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Stewart was set to start the season with new crew chief, Mike Bugarewicz but with the back injury, he had to sit at home, in the pit box and everywhere else besides inside the race car. His first race back, Stewart finished 19th at Richmond International Raceway. The following race at Talladega Superspeedway, the team earned a sixth place finish. When the series visited Kansas Speedway, Stewart finished 12th and it appeared that “Smoke” was back; however, the next three races didn’t go so well. The team amassed a 34th at Dover, a 24th at Charlotte and another 34th place finish at Pocono.
“I’m starting the season with a new crew chief that I hadn’t worked with,” Stewart said. “I think the best thing that happened was doing ‑‑ going against doctor’s orders. They wanted me to stay at home, and going to the track and being on the pit box and having a radio on and listening to him communicate, I think it made it easier for me to learn him, but he didn’t get a chance to learn me.
“To know ‑‑ the way we were hoping the season would start obviously was totally derailed, and you really don’t know what to expect out of it. But it’s a learning process with him. Like I say, I think he’s doing a great job.”
Heading into the weekend’s race at Sonoma Raceway, Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 team were coming off an impressive seventh place finish at Michigan International Speedway. With momentum on their side, Stewart qualified 10th on Saturday and had a strong car throughout the race on Sunday.
In the closing laps of Sunday’s race, Tony Stewart could taste victory for the first time all year long. With this season being his last, Stewart didn’t know if he’d ever have an opportunity to win again, but he couldn’t let the emotions get to him because his former teammate, Denny Hamlin was right on his back bumper.
“With about eight to go was the first time I thought, hey, we might actually have a shot to hold onto this, and I actually got a little bit emotional thinking about it while I was driving,” Stewart said. “But you stay so focused and you have to. That was when they got racing each other and there was a bit of a gap and I had a little bit of a breather there to kind of think that once Denny got closing in, it was back to business. You didn’t have time to think about wine and flowers and ponies and all that stuff. I had to get back to business.”
Tony Stewart led the final 22 laps of the Toyota/Save Mart 350, but on the last lap, the victory nearly slipped away. Denny Hamlin was able to get to Stewart’s right rear corner panel and nudge him out of the way to take over the lead in Turn 7. Stewart, the 18-year series veteran slid through the corner, but he didn’t spin the tires and was able to get back into a rhythm and stay with Hamlin.
“When I went down in (Turn) 7 the second‑to‑last lap, I wheel hopped it pretty big and Denny got right to us there,” Stewart said. “We held him off through the rest of the lap and the first half of the last lap, and then he was really close to us off of (Turn) 4, enough that I knew I couldn’t help but cheat the corner. I gave him the whole outside. If he wanted to go around me on the outside, I was going to give him all the room he wanted but I wasn’t going to give him the inside. But I went down and wheel hopped it again, and he saw it from the lap before and he knew he needed to take advantage of that. I assume he did. He got us there.”
Denny Hamlin opened up a considerably large gap between he and Stewart coming out of Turn 10, but as he entered Turn 11, Hamlin ran wide and opened the door for Stewart. The two drivers banged doors and coming out of the corner, Hamlin went into the concrete wall, while Stewart sailed away to his first victory in three years.
“When he went into (Turn) 11 I was probably more surprised than anybody,” Stewart said. “I couldn’t believe ‑‑ as good as he was braking into 11 all day, I couldn’t believe he missed the corner. They said he wheel hopped it, but I was shocked that the door was open like that. 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. We’re going to try, but knowing that that could be the difference between making the Chase or not making the Chase, I wasn’t going to be cordial in the exit of the corner and I roughed him up pretty good.”
Now that Stewart has a win, all he has to do is be within the top-30 in the point standings following the race at Richmond on September 10, and he’ll qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. With that being said, Stewart is currently 32nd in the standings, only nine points away from Brian Scott, who holds the 30th position. But, Stewart isn’t racing to just get inside the top-30. The 45-year old wants to accumulate as many wins as possible before the final checkered flag in November. With the tight competition that competes every weekend in the series, even the most seasoned veteran never knows when their last victory may be. Stewart said on Sunday that if this win at Sonoma Raceway was his last, he’d be all right with that.
“This place has meant a lot to me,” Stewart said. “It’s nice to ‑‑ if I don’t win another one, it’s cool to win the last one here. If it doesn’t happen again, it’s cool. I’ll be all right if this is the last place I win one. I’m going for more, just for the record. I see pens going crazy. 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. But I don’t think ‑‑ 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.”
Next on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, July 2. Live coverage for the race will broadcast on NBC and the Motor Racing Network (MRN) at 7:45 p.m. ET.
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