Tony Stewart’s 84-race winless streak is over. And it was snapped with a doorslam.
Stewart knocked Denny Hamlin out of the way on the final corner of the final lap of Sunday’s race at Sonoma when Hamlin’s car slid up high on entrance into the hairpin corner.
[Related: Quick takeaways from Sonoma]
Hamlin had knocked Stewart out of the way in turn 7 a few corners earlier and Stewart didn’t look like he had a chance to get back to Hamlin’s bumper. But Hamlin’s car looked like it wheel hopped – he said it didn’t – into turn 11, and Stewart drove inside of him on the final corner.
Once Stewart was inside of Hamlin, there was no denying him the win. He moved Hamlin out of the way and into the wall and drove towards the checkered flag with smoke billowing from the sheetmetal rubbing his left front tire.
“It’s special, trust me,” Stewart said.
Stewart missed the first eight races of the season after suffering a broken vertebra in January while driving a sand buggy. He was given a waiver by NASCAR to be eligible for the Chase upon his return, and much like Kyle Busch in 2015, Stewart is now on his way towards the Chase.
“I made mistakes the last two laps. I had just a little too much rear brake for turn 7 and wheel-hopped it two laps in a row,” Stewart said. “I felt a nudge … he did the right thing doing it there, and if I could get to him he knew what was coming.”
Yes, Hamlin did.
“I got in there, I didn’t wheel-hop or anything, I just slid up just a little bit in the middle and allow him to really get a good run on me,” Hamlin said. “And once he had position we weren’t going to drag race at that point. I knew he was going to put me in the wall. He’s doing what he has to do and we were trying to do what we had to do in turn 7 so all’s fair in love and war.”
Stewart is now nine points outside the top 30. If he gets into the top 30 he’s making the Chase.
The win is Stewart’s first since Dover at 2013, when he won that race thanks to a two-tire pit stop. Along with 84 races in between wins, Stewart suffered a broken leg in a sprint car accident in the summer of 2014, was involved in an accident that killed sprint car driver Kevin Ward in 2014 and missed the first eight races of the season.
And when Stewart was on the track, he’d been bad. Struggling with the increased downforce and decreased horsepower on the Sprint Cup Series cars, Stewart had just 17 top-10 finishes since that Dover win. He also said in the fall of 2015 that 2016 would be his final season on the circuit.
While the final lap was incredible racing, we’ve got to mention how Stewart got the track position for the win. He had a good car throughout most of Sunday’s race, but it didn’t look like he was heading for an 18th top-10 finish without a crazy set of circumstances.
Stewart pitted with approximately 25 laps to go under green as many drivers were saying there was debris on the track. Stewart rejoined the race in 32nd place, but a caution for the debris came out less than a lap after he pitted. When the rest of the field came to pit road for fresh tires, Stewart found himself in the lead and wasn’t passed save for the four turns Hamlin had the lead.
“We could run close to those guys all day, we just got stuck back in traffic,” Stewart said.
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