Tony Stewart crew chief on Sonoma win: ‘Just enjoy it, take it in’

Once he finally made it back to his North Carolina home following last Sunday’s mind-blowing victory for his driver at Sonoma Raceway, Tony Stewart crew chief Mike Bugarewicz knew just what to do.

He grabbed a cold beer and sat back to try to reflect on what had just happened.

Stewart, 45, is in the final season of his 18-year career as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Bugarewicz is in his first as Stewart’s crew chief.

But when it comes to breaking down Stewart’s unlikely victory on the 1.99 Sonoma road course, the rookie crew chief deserves much of the credit.

Yes, Stewart drove like the three-time champion he is to pass Denny Hamlin in the final hairpin turn for the win after Hamlin had passed Stewart for the lead only four turns earlier. But Bugarewicz put the veteran driver in position to go for the win with a gutsy pit call earlier.

With 24 laps to go, Bugarewicz heard NASCAR officials talking about possibly throwing a caution flag for debris. Stewart was running 17th at the time and Bugarewicz immediately called him to pit road for what would be the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team’s final pit stop.

"We heard them talking about it, but we didn’t know for sure if they’d throw it or not," Bugarewicz said. "We kind of just assumed with a rag laying on the track earlier and they threw a caution, I figured, well, if there’s anything similar to a rag or larger, they’re going to throw the caution again.

"Again, it was just a chance that we took, a chance to get a win. Running 17th, finishing 17th wasn’t really going to do us much good, so we had to try something."

Bugarewicz said he was careful not to say too much to Stewart too soon over the team radio, lest other teams decide to pursue the same strategy.

"Just because I didn’t know how many other people were listening to NASCAR at the time to see if they were hearing that they were talking about debris or not, so I kind of didn’t want to give anybody an extra couple seconds to think about pitting with us or anything," Bugarewicz said. "So I wanted to wait until we were going down the esses there to let him know that we needed to come."

Stewart was able to get in and out of the pits before NASCAR threw the yellow flag one lap later. That brought the rest of the field to pit road, while Stewart was able to stay out and assume the lead that he only briefly relinquished to Hamlin the rest of the way and then took back almost immediately.

For Bugarewicz, 34, it could be a defining moment in a career that only now is developing.

It has not been an easy rookie crew-chief year for the engineer by trade. Shortly before the season began, Stewart suffered a back injury that sidelined him for the first eight races.

So instead of working with Stewart to start out his first season as a crew chief, building chemistry in the only season they are to have together, Bugarewicz instead had to adjust to working with substitute drivers Brian Vickers (for five races) and Ty Dillon (for three).

Once Stewart finally came back for the Richmond race in late April, it was slow going at first for the Stewart-Bugarewicz tandem.

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There was a sixth-place finish at Talladega in their second start together, but that came only after Stewart started the race and gave way to substitute driver Dillon. In their other five first races together, Stewart’s average finish was 24.6 and twice he finished 34th.

"The way we were hoping the season would start obviously was totally derailed, and you really don’t know what to expect out of it," Stewart said. "But it’s a learning process with him."

Right away Stewart said he learned to appreciate his new crew chief’s strong work ethic. Even before he could get back behind the wheel, Stewart started going to races and observing Bugarewicz, offering advice to the race team when he could.

"He takes an approach I’ve never seen anybody else do, and he studies," said Stewart, who scored the 49th Premier Series win of his storied career at Sonoma, but his first in more than two years. "I can’t remember what race it was.  We flew out together maybe to California or Phoenix or something, and he was watching the entire race and writing notes down off of the previous race there."

Barely 48 hours before winning last Sunday’s race, Stewart complained that he wasn’t having fun any longer running the Sprint Cup races. Bugarewicz helped put a smile back on his veteran driver’s face, and he recalled what Stewart said to him before the race.

"He said, ‘If I get angry and start yelling at you today, just remind me to have fun.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know how that’ll work out for me,’ " Bugarewicz said. "But no, we always talk about that. What’s most important for all of us is just enjoy it, take it in. You have to do that."

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