Tony Stewart’s victory in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 produced two compelling storylines for the rest of the NASCAR season.
If they sound familiar, it’s because they are.
Stewart won at Sonoma after he missed the first eight races of the season with an injury. That’s the same scenario from a year ago, when Kyle Busch won on the northern California road course after injuries had kept him out of the first 11 races of the season.
Then there’s this: With the victory, Stewart has all but qualified for the Chase in what is his final season as a Cup driver. In 2015, Jeff Gordon – although he doing so in far less dramatic fashion – also made the postseason in his final year as a driver.
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“We’re probably witnessing a historic moment right now in NASCAR,” said Joey Logano, who finished third Sunday. “It was a really cool thing for Tony to be able to come back and get that win and obviously the same place Kyle did it last year, which is kind of ironic after he was hurt.”
Busch broke his leg and foot in the season-opening Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway. He returned 11 races later at Charlotte and received a medical waiver from NASCAR to be eligible to qualify for the Chase. He got his first win at Sonoma and went on to win the championship.
Whether Stewart can keep winning as Busch did remains to be seen. But, like Gordon last season, he will at least get the chance.
Gordon, like Stewart a multiple champion, was actually closer to not making the Chase than Stewart will likely be. Gordon didn’t win during the regular season and had to qualify for the Chase on points. But he did advance to the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway when he won at Martinsville in the third round.
Along with the victory, Stewart will have to finish in the top 30 in the points standings to make the Chase. He’s 32nd now, just nine points out of 30th.
“Jeff set the bar pretty high last year, winning a race in the clutch to get to the last race at Homestead,” said Stewart. “Just to be able to be in the Chase, if we can make it – I mean, we’re still not out of the woods yet.”
Stewart said he never reconsidered his retirement decision after he was hurt in a dune buggy accident in California in February. However this season finishes now, he will be ready to step full-time into his role as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and whatever else retirement from driving the No. 14 Chevy brings.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to myself,” he said. “I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’m still happy about my decision to make the change I’m making next year.”