On Friday, Tony Stewart said racing was no longer fun for him.
It took about 48 hours for that to change.
Stewart, who is retiring as a NASCAR Cup driver after this season, bumped and passed Denny Hamlin on the final turn of the final lap to win Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
So, after missing the first eight races of the season after fracturing a vertebra in a dune-buggy accident in February, Stewart is on the cusp of qualifying for the Chase.
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It was a stirring victory for Stewart, who hadn’t won since 2013. It was his eighth career road-course victory, most among active drivers and second all-time behind Jeff Gordon’s nine. If Stewart can finish in the top 30 in points – and he is now nine points out of that position – he will likely clinch a spot in the postseason.
“With about eight (laps) to go, I thought I have a shot,” said Stewart, 44, who took the lead with 22 laps to go. “I actually got a little emotional about it while driving. But once Denny closed in, it was back to business. I don’t need to be thinking about wine and flowers and ponies anymore.”
The race’s winning move actually came with 24 laps remaining, when first-year crew chief Mike Bugarewicz brought Stewart into the pits for a four-tire change. One lap later, a yellow flag came out for debris on the track. The race leaders all came in during the caution, but Stewart didn’t need to. He was out front on the restart and – officially – never relinquished the lead.
On the final lap, Hamlin actually passed Stewart on the seventh turn of the 11-turn course. But when Hamlin went wide on the final, hairpin turn, Stewart took the inside. The two bumped, with the contact sending Hamlin briefly into the wall. Stewart sprinted away to win. Hamlin recovered in time to finish second, with Joey Logano third and pole-sitter Carl Edwards fourth.
“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.
“We’re going to try, but knowing 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. I roughed him up pretty good. If it has been a street fight, (Hamlin would) have had two black eyes.”
Hamlin didn’t disagree.
“I didn’t know if he would physically spin us out,” Hamlin said. “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? He’s in his final season, so his give-a-(expletive) factor is probably really low.”
The past three years have been trying for Stewart. The dune-buggy accident happened three weeks before the season-opening Daytona 500. A race Stewart, 44, has never won. Stewart broke his leg in 2013 during a sprint car race and missed 15 races. He missed three races in 2014 after he was involved in a sprint car accident that claimed the life of another driver on a dirt track in upstate New York.
That time frame coincides with Stewart’s last victory, which came in 2013 at Dover, Del. That’s 110 races ago (he started 84 of them).
Those circumstances and the winning drought were at least partly responsible for Stewart’s comments Friday, when he was inducted into Sonoma’s Wall of Fame.
“I’m ready to go run stuff that makes me happy, and driving a Sprint Cup car does not make me happy right now,” Stewart said after the ceremony. “I’ve dedicated 18 years of my life to this series and it’s done great by me – I’ve made a great living doing it. But at the same time, there are other things in life I want to do other than be at a NASCAR track three days a week for 38 weekends out of 52 weeks a year.”
Now, Stewart and his team can concentrate on enjoying the final year of his career and chasing what would be a fourth Cup championship.
“My guys have been through this whole disastrous roller coaster the last three or four years and never backed down,” he 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 and (say), ‘Hey, this isn’t over.’ I’m proud for them, and it meant more for me to get it for them than for myself.”
As Stewart crossed the finish line, two thoughts went through his mind. First, he was worried that Hamlin might confront him, possibly upset with the last-turn bump. Instead, Hamlin walked up to Stewart’s car, stuck his head in the window and told Stewart he was proud of him.
Then, rather than turning his car around and driving back down the front stretch to celebrate, Stewart slowly drove up the hill that begins Sonoma’s road course.
“This is my last time here,” Stewart said. “I’m going to go one more lap. One more lap.”