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“SMOKE” RETURNS TO VICTORY LANE WITH HISTORIC WIN
The best stories in NASCAR are the ones that are both totally true and completely stranger than fiction.
Sunday’s remarkable race at Sonoma Raceway certainly fits in that category, thanks to a dramatic and popular victory by Tony Stewart, one that will be talked about for years to come.
Stewart got the lead on Lap 89 of 110 by short-pitting just before a caution flag on Lap 88. Once out front, Stewart held off a furious charge from Denny Hamlin to score an emotional triumph and make his first visit to Victory Lane in 84 races.
Leader Stewart got passed by Hamlin in Turn 7 of the last lap, but rallied back to get past Hamlin in Turn 11 to win for the first time since Dover on June 2, 2013. It was his 49th career win for the three-time Cup champion, who turned 45 years old in May.
Hamlin simply missed the final corner, which set up Stewart’s race-winning pass
“As good as he (Hamlin) was braking into 11 all day, I couldn't believe he missed the corner,” Stewart said. “They said he wheel hopped it, but I was shocked that the door was open like that. You can't crack the door open with me on the last corner of the last lap and expect me to not take it. I'll kick the door in or drive a bulldozer through it to keep it open.”
And he minced no words about being aggressive going into the final corner of the race.
“Knowing that that could be the difference between making the Chase or not making the Chase, I wasn't going to be cordial in the exit of the corner and I roughed him up pretty good,” Stewart said. “If it had been a street fight, he'd have had two black eyes after that. I used him up pretty hard.”
With the victory, Stewart put himself in perfect position to get into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in this, his final season of racing in this series.
“It’s special, trust me,” said Stewart. “When you're in a scenario like that, I don't know if I'm going to get another scenario or opportunity to win another race the rest of the year.”
Considering his terrible misfortunes of the last three years ”” a gruesome leg injury in an Iowa sprint car race in 2013, another headline-making sprint car accident in New York in 2014, and then Stewart’s sand-rail accident and broken-back in January of this year ”” this reversal of fortune was nothing short of remarkable.
The Stewart victory couldn’t have come at a better time.
“He's one of the greatest racers in NASCAR of all time,” said Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas about his partner. “He's smooth. He doesn't make mistakes. He's fast. You haven't seen that in a few years, and I'm sure that that grates on him. But this is just a vindication that he has a natural talent, and that talent is something that is still there. You can see it. And I think he feels great, and I hope this day lasts for the rest of the year.”
This much is for certain, Stewart will remember it for a long time to come.“My guys have been through this whole disastrous roller coaster the last three or four years and never backed down,” said Stewart. “They've never quit on me. There's days I've quit on myself and they're the guys that send you text messages and call you when you get home like hey, this isn't over. I'm proud for them, and it meant more for me to get it for them than for myself.”