Who’s in the headline – Friday, Tony Stewart said, “driving a Sprint Cup car does not make me happy right now.” Wonder how he feels after a trip to Victory Lane? Based on that winning look on his face my guess is “ecstatic” after a last-lap, last-turn re-pass of Denny Hamlin earned Smoke his first victory since Dover in June 2013. Stewart has been far from competing for wins this season, but a fortuitous pit stop and caution flag combination put the three-time champion in front of the field when it mattered. Holding off the competition for the final 22 laps will now, for all intents and purposes, give the three-time champ a spot in the Chase during his final NASCAR season as a driver.
What happened – Carl Edwards and AJ Allmendinger started on the front row and stayed there through Sonoma’s first half. Then Hamlin moved to the forefront, paired with teammate Kyle Busch shortly before the crossed flags went in the air. A debris caution plus pit strategy boosted the No. 11 Toyota, causing Hamlin to lead 33 laps before a turn of events that put Stewart in the top spot of the race.
Struggling in traffic, Stewart hit pit lane with an ill-handling car, barely hanging on the lead lap while hoping fresh tires would give the No. 14 car a respectable finish. No more than a minute later, the caution flew for debris Jimmie Johnson believes fell off his car. As the rest of the field pitted under caution, Stewart stayed on track, cycling right to the front of the field.
That caused a chaotic final segment where Stewart held off a small group of challengers that included Hamlin, Martin Truex, Jr. and Edwards. As the final lap unfolded, Hamlin got to Stewart’s back bumper and nudged him out of the way in turn seven to take the lead. But when Hamlin headed into the hairpin for the final time he overdrove the corner, slid wide and opened the door for Stewart. On exit, Stewart gave Hamlin a body slam, bumped the No. 11 into the wall and ensured his No. 14 would make it back to the finish line first.
Why you should care – The Stewart storyline (pending retirement + fractured vertebrae + rehab + new personnel) has been recounted hundreds of times since the Daytona 500 and especially since he returned to the track in Richmond, Va. Before Sunday, there were few people who thought there’d be a happy ending, because Smoke was far from contending for wins. But Sonoma saw flashes of the Stewart of old, the veteran who willed his way to a third Cup title in 2011. With this win, assuming he will make up a nine-point deficit to 30th, Stewart should make the 2016 Chase. The only possible factor that could derail that magical journey would be if there are six new winners in the next 10 races, a wrinkle that would bring points into the mix and probably exclude Stewart from the championship field.
What your friends are talking about – Prior to Stewart’s surprise victory, the entire NASCAR world was talking about a Saturday night dust-up at Gateway Motorsports Park. Spencer Gallagher and John Wes Townley got together with 15 laps to go in the race and Townley went around to bring out the caution. 10 laps later, they got together again, and both cars ended up disabled and next to each other on the banking between turns 1 and 2. The drivers took some time to get out of their cars but they quickly came together, began groping each other and rolled down the banking. In what looked more like an awkward prom date than a fight, there were a couple of punches landed by JWT. Forget any NASCAR penalties to come; the two combatants are in serious danger of losing their man cards for the foreseeable future.
Brad Keselowski tested an Indy car at Road America during his off time. The post-test discussion, of course, turned to a possible Indy 500 run, one the NASCAR driver himself is not discounting. As for Team Penske? President Tim Cindric stated there is a “20 percent possibility” of it happening anytime soon. You can never say never and Keselowski’s dynamic personality would certainly garner a lot of attention for NASCAR.
Speaking of drivers dabbling in other circuits, look for Kurt Busch to run in the Gulf 12 Hours this December. Busch was at the European Grand Prix in Baku last weekend. After attending the race, he went to Abu Dhabi and tested an F3000 car just to get some laps around the circuit. Busch’s association with Monster Energy is going to afford him the chance to climb into a ride with Jorge Lorenzo and probably another Monster athlete to compete in the 12-hour endurance event.
Chase Elliott may have come home 21st on Sunday, but he was in Victory Lane on Saturday as he started on the pole and won the K&N West Series race at Sonoma. In an effort to get the young driver more seat time at the historic road course, Elliott jumped into a NAPA-sponsored No. 24 and paced the K&N field. Elliott didn’t dominate the race, but he saved his tires and made a pass on NASCAR Next talent Noah Gragson with three laps to go to grab the win.
Jeff Gordon is done in the booth for the season, but he may not be done on television. Rumors were flying this week about the possibility that Gordon may be tabbed as the replacement for Michael Strahan on the popular morning program Live with Kelly. Gordon has co-hosted the show before and has friendships with many of the people who put on the broadcast. He maintains that his primary focus is NASCAR on FOX but if negotiations allow for both, he’ll consider it. Strahan made it work with the NFL broadcast; can Gordon do the same? Note the time commitment for NASCAR races is a bit more than the studio show for Sunday football shows.
Who is mad – Clint Bowyer has been mad for most of the season. His time at HScott Motorsports has been far from enjoyable, as two top 10s and an average finish of 24.1 is far from what Bowyer expects from his racing efforts. Sunday, his No. 15 ride lasted eight laps before an electrical fire knocked him out for his second DNF of the season. The heir to the No. 14 at Stewart-Haas Racing has to be counting down the days until the checkered flag flies in Homestead, Fla., and he can start his new racing life as Stewart’s replacement.
AJ Allmendinger knows a road course is his best shot at winning a race during the 2016 season. After struggling in practice, Allmendinger put his ride on the outside of the front row as JTG Daugherty once again threatened to take the checkered flag at Sonoma. ‘Dinger ran near the front of the pack, keeping pace most of the day but his team lost contact with a tire during his pit stop during the final caution. That pushed him back to 26th with 20 laps to go, killing his chances here yet again. Allmendinger ran from there to 14th, a frantic and impressive recovery but he has to be thinking what might have been.
It is a very rare day when you think of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. being mad after a top-11 run at a road course. Earnhardt unloaded fast and was at the top of the speed charts after the final practice Friday. Qualifying found NASCAR’s most popular driver starting 13th, but he felt like a darkhorse contender. Indeed, Earnhardt charged inside the top 5 three different times during the race, but contact with Carl Edwards while on the inside of three-wide damaged the fender on the No. 88. That ended any hope for a win.
Who is happy – Kasey Kahne has been struggling this season to find consistency. He has two top 5s and six top 10s but has been hit or miss all year. Kahne finished 13th at Michigan, sixth at Pocono and 22nd at Charlotte. That said, a ninth-place finish has to put a smile on his face, coming at a track in Sonoma where Kahne has run well in recent years. The finish also has him in the top 16 in points, keeping him in contention for a Chase slot.
Ryan Newman has never won at Sonoma but the track is one of his best on the circuit. Despite being winless here the only tracks where Newman has a better average finish are Richmond and Darlington. Sunday was another good run for him as he came home in eighth place.
Edwards was pushing hard to make a move on Joey Logano, attempting a shot for the win as the laps were winding down when he found himself in the middle of that three-wide sandwich. Edwards made contact with Earnhardt, sustaining slight damage but he did hang on to finish fourth. That now gives him four career top-5 runs at Sonoma and keeps the No. 19 Toyota team one of the hottest on the circuit these days.
When the checkered flag flew:
- Tony Stewart snapped an 84-race winless streak with his victory at Sonoma Raceway. It had been 110 races since Stewart won at Dover in June of 2013 but he only competed in 84 of those events.
- This win is Stewart’s 49th of his career and came in his 598th start.
- The victory moves Stewart into sole possession of 13th on the all-time wins list and one shy of a tie for 11th with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.
- The triumph is Stewart’s eighth career road course win, most among active drivers and one behind Jeff Gordon for the all-time lead in that category.
- Sunday marked the third time Stewart won at Sonoma in 18 career starts.
- The victory is Stewart’s first of 2016 and makes him the 11th different driver to visit Victory Lane this season.
- Denny Hamlin finished in the second spot. It is the best finish of his career at Sonoma Raceway.
- Hamlin has 21 career second-place runs, which is tied for 38th on the all-time list.
- Joey Logano crossed the finish line in third position.
- The finish is Logano’s career best in eight Sonoma starts. It’s Logano’s fourth podium of 2016 and second in a row.
- Logano now has 37 career top-3 runs, a total that ties him for 58th on the all-time list with Hall of Famer Curtis Turner.
- Chase Elliott came home in 21st position, which was the best by any freshman competitor.
Drivers currently locked into the Chase thanks to multiple wins are Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. Assuming they attempt to run the remaining races before Richmond they are assured a spot in the final 16. Drivers with one win and in the top 30 in points are Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Joey Logano. If five or fewer new winners are crowned over the next 10 races then they will all make the Chase provided they stay in the top 30 and attempt all the races. Tony Stewart, meanwhile, will make the Chase if he can make up the nine points he is behind 30th in the standings and there are 16 or fewer winners by the end of Richmond. The remaining drivers who would make the Chase based on points and their point position at this point in time:
6) Chase Elliott
12) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
13) Ryan Newman
14) Austin Dillon
15) Jamie McMurray
16) Kasey Kahne
What is in the cooler – If on-track passes for the lead are the measure of a good race, then this one was a dud. Fortunately, there is more to racing than that. The assortment of pit strategies, the battles in the pack and the drivers who came from the back to the front for different reasons all made the race exciting. Add in a last-lap swap of the lead twice and the race receives a solid four cold Thriller American Stouts from Cooperage Brewing Company.
Where you point your DVR for next week – The unofficial midway point of the season is next weekend when the Firecracker 400, now known as the Coke Zero 400, runs at Daytona International Speedway. The race is Saturday, July 2 and set to broadcast on NBC, the network who begins their half of the television season with this race. It airs at 7:45 p.m. ET and can also be heard on local MRN affiliates and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.