This NASCAR season has been full of popular victories. Martin Truex, Jr.’s emotional victory in the Coca-Cola 600 was perhaps the most popular in the Sprint Cup Series. Daniel Suarez became the first Mexican driver to win in NASCAR earlier this year in the XFINITY Series, and it too was well-received by fans. Sam Hornish, Jr. won in his first race back in a car in 2016 a couple of weeks ago also in the XFINITY Series, creating another feel-good Victory Lane story.
Tony Stewart may have topped them all.
Stewart snapped an 84-race winless drought at Sonoma Raceway yesterday, his first victory since winning at Dover International Speedway in 2013. This is the 45-year-old’s final season in the Sprint Cup Series, and there are many who want to see Stewart go out with the same pageantry that Jeff Gordon did in his final season last year. While the celebratory nature of Gordon’s final year certainly doesn’t match Stewart’s nature, no one wanted to see the No. 14 contend for a championship in 2016 more than Stewart.
Unfortunately, that task became all the more difficult prior to the start of the season. During an ATV accident in January, Stewart fractured his vertebra and missed the first eight races of the season. Similar to a situation involving Kyle Busch in 2015, NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver, which stated that if Stewart won a race and was able to make it to the top 30 in points before the Chase starts in the fall, he would be able to compete in the postseason.
Task number one has been accomplished.
“They’re all good; it doesn’t matter where you get them,” Stewart said in Victory Lane. “But, we ran close to those guys all day. We just got stuck back in traffic. It’s pretty ironic the last one we got was in a Code 3 car and I’m proud to do it again. I’m proud of Mobil 1 and Bass Pro and everybody. It’s just an awesome job.”
Stewart is now nine points behind 30th-place Brian Scott, a number that is, at this point, negligible. While Stewart expressed some concern about getting through Daytona this weekend, there are still 10 races left in the regular season for him to make up that ground.
“Daytona is going to be a big hurdle,” Stewart said in the post-race press conference. “As much as you want to go win that thing, it’s crisis management more than anything, I think, because I think if we can get through that, I feel like our performance is good enough to get us the rest of the way there. We’ve just got to take care of ourselves to get through there.”
It has certainly been a rough last few years for Stewart. Since the end of the 2012 season, 2015 has been the only season where Stewart was able to run all 36 races. In 2013, he ran only 21 of the 36 races, missing the final 15 races after suffering a broken right tibia and fibula in a in a crash during a sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
In 2014, Stewart ran 33 of 36 races, missing three races following his involvement in a wreck during a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in Canandaigua, N.Y., that resulted in the death of Kevin Ward, Jr.
In 2015, Stewart earned only three top-10 finishes and finished 28th in points, the lowest he has ever finished in the standings in a season where he was able to compete in every race.
A miserable last few seasons gave this race even more meaning to Stewart.
“With about eight to go was the first time I thought, hey, we might actually have a shot to hold onto this, and I actually got a little bit emotional thinking about it while I was driving,” Stewart said. “But you stay so focused and you have to. That was when they got racing each other and there was a bit of a gap and I had a little bit of a breather there to kind of think that once Denny got closing in, it was back to business. You didn’t have time to think about wine and flowers and ponies and all that stuff. I had to get back to business. But it was nice.”
Now, Stewart looks ahead to the end of the season. It’s more likely than not that Stewart will be in the Chase, which is a complete reversal of what the storyline was surrounding this No. 14 team since the start of the year. Stewart is almost undoubtedly the sentimental favorite to win the title, but what are the realistic chances of the happening?
“I’m going to go with the same approach we had before,” Stewart explained. “I told them, ‘I think we’re gaining on it.’ I think it’s a scenario where you crawl before the walk, you walk before you jog, jog before you run, run before you sprint. It’s phases that we’re going through. I felt like Michigan and Pocono we got jogging, and we’re getting closer to being where we need to be. We’re not there yet, but we’ve still got time to get there, and we’ve gained a bunch of ground in a short amount of time, and if we can keep making that ground and keep getting better, who knows.”
With that said, Stewart also acknowledges the struggles that this team has faced performance-wise, and realizes that while it is possible that Sonoma will be the first of many wins, it also has the possibility of being his final NASCAR victory.
“This place has meant a lot to me,” said Stewart. “It’s nice to — if I don’t win another one, it’s cool to win the last one here. If it doesn’t happen again, it’s cool. I’ll be all right if this is the last place I win one.”
However, don’t expect Stewart to cruise his way through the rest of the season.
“I’m not saying I’m laying down, I’m saying if that’s the only one I get this year, then I’ll be content,” he clarified. “But I don’t think — I think you’ve known me long enough, you guys know that I don’t lay down for anything. All you’ve got to do is just give me that little bit of hope, and I’ll run with it.”
It’s difficult to tell for sure where Stewart will be at the end of the season. In the Chase? Most likely. After that? Who knows. But it will give Stewart’s fans some solace and closure to know he was able to pull into Victory Lane and have the chance to make a run for a fourth title one last time.