Tony Stewart's career may not have been the best in NASCAR history, but it has been among the more interesting. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the 45-year-old veteran in the twilight of his career is to note that the sport wouldn't have been nearly so intriguing without Stewart in it.
The final lap of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 was Stewart in microcosm. After clinging to the lead for 21 laps, keeping the apparently faster Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin at bay, Stewart lost the lead to Hamlin...and then wrested it back.
The 49th Sprint Cup victory of Stewart's career was the 49th triumph of his indomitable will.
“This place has meant a lot to me,” Stewart said of Sonoma Raceway to Fox Sports:
If I don’t win another one, it’s cool to win the last one here. If it doesn’t happen again, it’s cool. I’ll be all right if this is the last place I win one. I’m going for more...just for the record. I’m not saying I’m laying down. I’m just saying if that’s the only one I get this year, then I’ll be content.
"Contentment" is a term seldom used to describe the mercurial Stewart, but he is retiring at year's end with three championships and almost everything else he sought other than a Daytona 500 victory. He talked about being ready to move on, but not without the appropriate bang.
Hamlin was the specific recipient of the appropriate bang. By his own admission, Hamlin had the race won until he rolled into Turn 11 of the 1.99-mile road course too fast and too wide. He knew Stewart was going to return the favor of his own untidy pass if he could get close enough.
Stewart stalked Hamlin. Preoccupied with the rearview mirror, Hamlin succumbed. The black Chevy delivered the blow. Hamlin finished second. The crowd roared.
After a 110-race absence from Victory Lane (though there were only 84 in which he actually competed), Stewart was back, and Hamlin took it with grace and dignity.
"It's not like I gave him one by any means," Hamlin said. "He gave us an opportunity to move him, we did, and then we got it back. It's just part of the deal."
"When he went into [Turn] 11, I was probably more surprised than anybody," Stewart said. "I couldn't believe, as good as he was braking into 11 all day, I couldn't believe he missed the corner. ... 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."
Enough of the blow-by-blow. Ditch the laps (110), the miles (218.9), the margin of victory (.625 of a second) and the average speed (95.777 mph).
|Tony Stewart's NASCAR Career at a Glance|
The only tangible worth noting is that Stewart did it. After seeing his competitive fire dampened by two major injuries, neither suffered behind the wheel of a stock car, and a tragedy that left another driver dead, Tony, not the Tiger but the Lionhearted, drove to glory again.
"I've always told people, this is one of those tracks that it's either you leave here happy or you leave here so mad you can't see straight," Stewart said, "and normally the restarts and the chaos on the restarts make you mad. We didn't have that today."
The chaos, or at least that which will be remembered, occurred on the final lap, and not even Hamlin could be too unhappy about it.
"He (Stewart) was doing what he had to do and we did what we had to do in turn," Hamlin told Fox Sports. "All is fair in love and war.”
Hamlin probably didn't even know he was quoting a novel written in 1850, and he likely didn't care either about Frank Smedley or the fact that he was speaking in the first-person plural.
NASCAR will have another last hurrah, just as it did a year ago when Jeff Gordon competed for one last championship in his farewell year.
Gordon fought the good fight. Stewart will, too. He will shortly reach the top 30 in points, even after missing the season's first eight races due to a back injury, and Sunday's victory will put him in the Chase come September.
Opportunity met preparation for Stewart, who seemed mired permanently in the gaggle until he and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz took a gamble that paid off. Stewart pitted two laps before a caution flag waved, and when everyone else pitted under caution, Stewart stayed out and took the lead, which he steadfastly maintained for each of the final 22 laps.
A break got Stewart to the front but didn't keep him there. Those final laps were all Stewart grit and stubbornness. A considerable quotient of talent was also on display.
Gene Haas, with whom Stewart runs Stewart-Haas racing, said:
Tony knows when he gets out front that he has the ability to compete with anybody. He's one of the greatest racers in NASCAR of all time. 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 it 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.
Gordon, whose NASCAR career predated Stewart's, was the first great driver from a new generation of shrewd, ready-for-prime-time players on racing's highest stage.
Stewart is the last of the red-hot racers, the last throwback to Foyt and Earnhardt. Almost alone among today's preening corporate clones, Stewart the businessman still finds the briefcase uncomfortable.
Bugarewicz recalled what Stewart said to him on race morning. "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.'"
If it's the last victory, perhaps there's still time for a last tantrum, a last glint of sarcasm from those dark eyes and a last bold charge through a thicket of racers less bold than him.
Stewart can be a royal pain in the posterior, and it's going to be amazing how much that dependable ouch is going to be missed.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.