By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
There were times in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, where it looked like any shot Tony Stewart had at reaching victory lane had all but vanished, but the always stubborn Stewart would battle back every single time.
As Stewart body slammed past Denny Hamlin in the final turn of Sunday’s race, it was incredible because just a couple of turns earlier it looked like Hamlin had nudged past Stewart for his first-career road course victory.
“I made mistakes the last two laps,” Stewart admitted in victory lane. “I had just a little bit too much rear brake for Turn seven, and wheel-hopped it two laps in a row. But, 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. He told me he was proud of me. He knows what it means. We were teammates for a long time and we respect each other a lot.”
Had it not been for a caution at lap 87, Stewart likely would have never had a shot at one of the most exciting finishes in Sonoma Raceway history.
24 laps before Stewart’s improbable move for the win, the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet came to pit road for an unscheduled pit stop as his tires had begun to fade. He would fall to 32nd, but the subsequent caution for debris a lap later meant he would assume the lead by staying on track while the rest of the field would pit.
Before the unscheduled pit stop, Stewart’s victory was also nearly snuffed out on lap 52, when a three-wide move on Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman back fired. Stewart hopped the curb in turn six, then washed out wide and nearly slammed into the outside retaining wall. However, Stewart would narrowly avoid disaster.
Earlier in the weekend, Stewart told the world basically that he was ready to retire from NASCAR, because he wasn’t having fun driving a stock car anymore. As he regained his composure from a grueling day in Sonoma, California, Stewart was as jubilant as he had ever been in 48-previous wins in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. I assure you after his incredible drive on Sunday, Stewart is having fun again.
After battling back from a broken leg in 2013, a racing tragedy in 2014 and a burst fracture in his back this past offseason, Stewart snapped his longest winless drought of his career — 84 races. Now he sits on the cusp of a Chase berth in his final season of Sprint Cup Series competition.
With 10 races until the Chase cutoff, Stewart sits just two positions and nine points out of the top-30 of the point standings. If Stewart can — and he likely should — battle back from that deficit, he will be racing for a championship when the Cup Series rolls into Chicago in a few months.
As I’ve been saying since his injury in the offseason, don’t count Stewart out yet folks.