Rare is it for a driver to break a huge winless streak, and even rarer is it for the streak to be broken by a driver over 40.
You see, as drivers age their production tends to decrease and by the time they retire, they are running as a ghost of their past self, putting in the occasional good run but nothing that compares to their peak. There are exceptions of course – Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin come to mind in recent years – but usually fans have seen the highlight reels completed well before the time a driver hangs it up.
That made Tony Stewart’s run to the win at Sonoma all the more satisfying. Stewart, in the midst of an 84-race winless streak, inherited the lead with about 20 laps to go and held off younger drivers in faster cars for all but half a lap. And when he lost the lead? He used a little luck and his car to push his way to victory in the final corner.
The win wasn’t the prettiest, but it was perhaps the hardest-fought in Stewart’s storied career. What’s even better for the owner-driver is that the win will put Stewart squarely in the playoffs should he crack the top 30 in points, and with 10 races to go and only nine points separating him from that position, barring a disaster or 16 other winners by Chicagoland he’ll be in the Chase for his final season.
The win was popular, sure. But might it be Stewart’s last? His 49th and final hurrah? Based on his production in recent years, it certainly might be. But with the monkey finally off his back and 26 races left in his storied career might lightning strike twice? Three times?
SMOKE’S ON FIRE
Let’s get this straight: Stewart absolutely deserved to win at Sonoma. He lucked out with how he got the lead but then he had to hold off the field – hard charging drivers that included past road course winners Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano, as well as Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin. Not for a lap, not for two, but for over 20 laps. That’s nearly 20 percent of the race Stewart held on to the lead.
Yes, he drove defensively, just as a master road racer would. But he also pulled away. He showed the younger drivers how it’s done, from cornering to recovering from wheel hop to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. By the time Victory Lane came, he was exhausted but deserving.
Deserving. It’s an important word in this case. You see, if Stewart had used pit strategy to take the lead with two to go and win in a green-white-checkered, perhaps the win would be his last. He’d take it any way to get it – he’s said he’d wreck his grandmother to win before – but feeling like he hadn’t earned it, that he was deserving, very well might have negated the confidence that comes with winning.
But he didn’t luck into it – he took what he wanted, at one of his best tracks, and the momentum could be very dangerous for his competition. Stewart has always been known as a summer racer. The days get long, the tracks get slick, and Tony Stewart wins a lot. So much so that of his 49 wins, 26 came in races that took place from May through August.
Daytona. Loudon. Indianapolis. Watkins Glen. These are among Smoke’s best tracks and they’re all coming up on the schedule. His average finish in the summer races at these tracks range from 9.6 (Indianapolis) to 15.11 (Daytona). He’s scored 13 wins there in the summer. With Sonoma-momentum on his side, and the confidence from his runs at Michigan and Pocono, Stewart could very well take them all. Oh yeah, don’t forget about Kentucky, which will have the same package as Michigan.
Now, is another five or six wins realistic? Possibly, but it isn’t likely. At this point in the game for Stewart it’s about pointing into the Chase. But a racer is a racer, and if a chance for a win comes up he would be a fool not to take it, even if it could jeopardize his Chase chances. Kyle Busch was in the same position last season as Stewart is in this one and won four times before the Chase started. I’d expect Stewart to make it to Victory Lane once or twice more, and I certainly expect them to come on his best tracks during his best season.
From there, anything goes. Once a driver wins one race, it’s a lot easier to keep the wins coming. Remember when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the Daytona 500 in 2014, breaking a 56-race winless streak? He won three more times that season. Martin in 2009 won for the first time since 2005 and won five races that year. And they all did it in top equipment, something that Stewart has in spades.
He’s been adamant about this over the past couple of years – the problem in his performance lies solely on his driving ability and not the cars, which happen to be the same ones that teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have contended for titles with. But Stewart looks to be back, and the fire in his drive now matches the drive of his cars.
Stewart’s shown speed this year. Sonoma was his second-straight top-10 finish and third of the season. He impressed using the test package at Michigan. He showed why he is the second-winningest road racer in NASCAR history at Sonoma. And while he didn’t score a good finish at Pocono, he was running great there before wrecking. Don’t expect another finish like that when the series returns in July. Expect him to be battling for the win there, just as he will be all summer.
SONOMA: A PERFECT BOOKEND TO A CAREER
Tony Stewart got the emotional win many drivers and fans hoped he’d get at Sonoma, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves and say he’ll win again.
Remember, the only reason Stewart was even in position to win on Sunday was because of – what else – a well-timed debris caution just after Smoke had come to pit road. Before that, he was little more than a mid-pack, top 10 hopeful.
That’s not to take away from Smoke’s drive over the final 20 laps. As a matter of fact, it makes it all the more impressive that the three-time champ held off his competitors with a car that clearly didn’t have the same speed. Stewart proved on Sunday that he still has the talent and poise to pull off unthinkable feats given the opportunity.
However, how many more opportunities is Stewart likely to get?
Sure, Smoke rattled off two top-10 runs in the weeks going into Sonoma. His No. 14 team is running the best they’ve ran in years, and by a noticeable margin.
Still, there are many other drivers and teams that continue to perform at a high level, including two of Stewart’s teammates – Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch – that lead the points going into this weekend’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.
The Joe Gibbs Racing unit continues to excel weekly, as does affiliate Martin Truex, Jr. with Furniture Row Racing. Team Penske’s stars continue to shine bright, and Hendrick Motorsports – while inconsistent – has proven they can take over and win races given the opportunity.
This all doesn’t go to say that Smoke won’t win again, it just stands to prove how many opponents he’ll need to outrun to pull it off. Forget about all of the other organizations. When you have two teammates sitting first and second in the points, the climb to the top proves awful steep.
Tony Stewart provided his fans with a vintage moment on Sunday, one they’ll likely remember for the rest of their days. I would advise them to cherish that moment, because repeating it over the season’s final 20 races won’t be easy, even for Smoke.