Once Tony Stewart broke his leg in a Sprint Car crash in 2013, it was easy to write him off in the long scheme of things. He had only won once that season with five top-fives and eight top-10s. In 2014 he was winless with three top-fives and seven top-10s. Then 2015 wasn’t any better, with a measly three top-10s. There was no reason to expect anything remotely different out of that No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team in 2016, which is Stewart’s retirement year.
So to see Stewart bring the fight to Denny Hamlin on the last corner of the last lap of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway and emerge victorious in his battered No. 14 Chevy was not only a pleasant surprise, but capped off one of the most emotional roads to recovery this sport has ever seen.
Stewart has always been strong on the road courses, leading all active drivers with eight wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, so his win there isn’t exactly a surprise, especially on the heels of a strong seventh-place run at Michigan. But look at his last three finishes there beginning in 2013: 28th, 19th, and 12th. It was definitely his worst streak at Sonoma since his first start in 1999, where he finished 15th after starting second.
But take some of the other things into consideration. In 2013 he struggled mightily, worse than he ever had, behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car. He did win at Dover in June, but that was due to good pit strategy. He wasn’t consistent, he wasn’t near the front, and he wasn’t doing so well. That carried on into 2014 and 2015, and what was once a question of when Stewart would win again became a question of if he would win again. Top-10s alone were cause for celebration among the Stewart supporters.
Then came Michigan two weeks ago, and Stewart put on a performance that was so strong and unexpected that many were wondering if he had turned the corner with his No. 14 and rookie Crew Chief Mike Bugarewicz. Then comes a 10th-place qualifying effort at Sonoma, followed by a determined performance by Stewart, where he led 22 laps and had no qualms door-slamming Hamlin out of the way on the way to victory.
Is this a championship statement? Not likely. Even though SHR has now won three times in 2016, they’re still being overshadowed by the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing. On top of that, even though it’s a given that Stewart will claim that 30th-place in points and claim his Chase spot come Richmond, it’s still too early to say if he’ll even contend for the championship. It would be nice, granted, but one win does not a championship run make.
The next race is Daytona, where Stewart has multiple wins in the July event. Daytona is also a crapshoot when it comes to winners and losers. Stewart is a strong superspeedway racer and could very well nail a top-five or a top-10 easily. He’s got a lot of good tracks coming up and he will be the one to watch in the next two months before the Chase starts.
Regardless of Chase status, it’s evident that the questions of whether or not Stewart has lost his edge can now stop. Drivers like Stewart, people like Stewart, never really lose that edge, that will to win. It may have been subdued over the last three years, but it never left Stewart completely. In the final corner of the final lap at Sonoma, it was made clear that that the will to win was stronger than ever. Stewart wanted to win at all costs and with the amount of crew members and peers including SHR drivers Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch as well as runner-up Hamlin coming up to congratulate him on his way to Victory Lane, it was obvious no one could blame him.