Well I told you last week that my sentimental pick going into Sunday’s Sonoma race was Tony Stewart. If you remember back to Michigan, it looked more like the Tony we’ve known all these years. He qualified well and ran up front all day coming home with a great seventh-place finish. So the No. 14 was carrying a lot of positive momentum heading into Sonoma.
I would wager, due to his struggles these last couple years, that folks had forgotten that Tony is one heck’uva road racer. Going into Sunday’s race he had won seven road races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series including two there at Sonoma. Again this past weekend Tony qualified well with a 10th place starting spot. So to me, that was another positive sign.
The thing was, unfortunately, he really didn’t have a front-running car. Tony ran mid-pack most of the afternoon but then Lady Luck finally showed herself to the No. 14 car. There was a report of debris on the track but the caution hadn’t waved.
Rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz made a split-second and very gutsy call to bring Tony to pit road for fresh tires ahead of the frontrunners. Tony comes out of the pits and then the caution flies, so ol’ Smoke was out in front and seemingly in control.
Trust me, it wasn’t a cakewalk to the checkered flag. There were still 20-some laps of hard racing to go. As Tony said in his post-race comments "I made mistakes the last two laps. I had a little too much rear brake in Turn 7 and wheel-hopped it two laps in a row."
It was on the last lap when Denny Hamlin in his FedEx No. 11 Toyota got by Tony for the lead but Tony wasn’t through. Coming into Turn 11, Denny went wide into the corner. Tony and Denny made contact, which also caused Denny to bang into the wall while Tony raced to his third checkered flag at Sonoma.
Before Tony got to Victory Circle, Denny was waiting for him, but it wasn’t due to anger. As Tony said, "Denny just told me he was proud of me. He knows what it means. We were teammates for a long time, and we respect each other a lot." So this was a very special, popular and yes, ironic win.
I say ironic for the simple fact of what happened here in 2015. Kyle Busch won this race after recovering from his injuries suffered during the XFINITY race at Daytona back in February 2015. It was this race last year that propelled Kyle into the Chase and eventually to the championship.
So here we sit one year later, with Tony, who was back in the car after recovering from his back injury, now on the verge of making the Chase in his final season for the possibility of his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
This was Tony’s first win in three years. It was his 49th of his soon-to-be NASCAR Hall of Fame career and probably one of the most special of all. This was a guy who last Friday told the media that he wasn’t having any fun in NASCAR. Now the improbable has happened where Tony is only nine points out of 30th spot in the points. NASCAR has stipulated when Tony came back from his injury that he not only had to win a race but also had to be in the Top 30 in points to qualify for the Chase.
Need I remind you what happened in 2011? Tony barely made the Chase and told anyone who would listen that he and his team didn’t deserve to be there. He said they weren’t that good. He said they were taking a spot from a team probably more deserving. Do you remember what happened? Tony and the No. 14 caught fire winning five of the 10 Chase races and Tony won his third NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Could history repeat itself? It possibly could. Nothing is ever a "given" in NASCAR. There are still 10 races in our regular season and that is a lot of racing. Then there are the 10 Chase races to be run. Tony has to get into and remain in the top 30 in points.
Now if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Tony. Like I mentioned earlier, he and rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz seem to be hitting their stride. Their chemistry seems to be meshing these last few weeks. Remember, this was only their eighth race together as Driver/Crew Chief, so who knows, the sky could be the limit.
What I do know is what Tony has meant to this sport. That’s why across the board you saw the happiness and respect in the entire garage area when Tony won Sunday. Trust me when I tell you the things he has accomplished on-track pale in comparison to the things he does away from the track for those less fortunate. Tony has a huge heart and does a lot of charitable things that he never seeks recognition for.
The other thing I know is Tony Stewart just turned 45, but the Tony Stewart I saw on that last 20-some laps out front and in the lead was Tony Stewart driving like he was 25. He was once again Tony the Tiger. I just don’t think we’ve heard the last from Anthony Wayne in 2016.