‘Little bit of hope’ takes ‘Smoke’ to Victory Lane at Sonoma – Nascar

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SONOMA, Calif. — An hour after all the Victory Lane photographs, congratulatory pats on the back from competitors, all the smiles and toasts, Tony Stewart conceded that while leading the field with eight laps remaining in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, he also did get a little emotional while steering his Chevrolet around the twisting Sonoma Raceway road course.

“With about eight to go it was the first time I thought, ‘hey, we might actually have a shot to hold onto this,’ and I actually got a little bit emotional thinking about it while I was driving,” Stewart said. “But you stay so focused and you have to. That was when they got racing each other and there was a bit of a gap and I had a little bit of a breather there to kind of think that once Denny (Hamlin) got closing in, it was back to business. 

“You didn’t have time to think about wine and flowers and ponies and all that stuff. I had to get back to business. But it was nice.”

RELATED: See all of ‘Smoke’s’ wins | Coverage of the accident, comeback 

As the laps wound down and Denny Hamlin‘s Toyota crept closer and closer to the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion’s bumper, the rest of the people in Stewart’s pit stall rose to cheer and support — at times tearfully. Stewart’s mother and father, his girlfriend, his close friends and his sponsor guests all stood at the track wall pumping their fists and yelling out encouragement each time he drove his No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet by them on the last turn of the winding course.

A member of his crew sat on pit wall looking down and averting his eyes, praying out loud each time Stewart whizzed by.

After Stewart led the previous 21 laps, Hamlin snuck by on Turn 7 of the final lap, forcing a rather “Stewart-like” aggressive but fair move back for the win on the final turn of the last lap as his supporters looked on 20 yards away.

Some were crying, some cheering, most high-fiving. All of them were smiling. 

His father, Nelson Stewart, was still wiping away tears while watching his only son celebrate in Victory Lane.

“It’s been a tough three years not just for him but everyone that’s close to him,” his father said. “I don’t know what to say. We all needed that bad. He really needed that bad.”

The “people’s champion,” as he is belovedly known among NASCAR fans, has won his first Sprint Cup Series race in nearly three seasons. It had been 84 races, multiple surgeries and plenty of emotional comebacks since his last checkered flag at Dover in 2013. He missed the first eight races this season after suffering a broken back in an all-terrain vehicle accident a couple weeks before his final season was to begin. It was the third time in four seasons that Stewart has missed races.

This win wasn’t just important in bolstering Stewart’s odds to make the playoff Chase for the Sprint Cup (he is still nine points out of the top-30 cutoff position), it was important in providing a proper farewell for the 49-time winner, three-time champion and one of the most talented racers to compete in NASCAR’s elite level.

Recently retired four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, now an announcer on FOX Sports’ Sprint Cup Series race broadcasts — came to Victory Lane still dressed in a suit to congratulate Stewart in person. Kevin Harvick and his wife, DeLana, stopped by for hugs and handshakes, as did Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola.

“It’s huge,” Gordon said, smiling broadly after speaking with Stewart. “I know from experience how big it is to win in your final season, get into Victory Lane and get into the Chase. Tony’s such an amazing race car driver and person, it was hard not to be pulling for him.

“That was a spectacular finish and that was completely Tony Stewart right there. They put him out front and he had to drive the wheels off of it to get it done.”

Even Hamlin, who dueled with the 45-year-old Stewart in the final laps, drove by on track to offer his best after a hard-fought race.

“We’ve got a lot of respect for each other,” Stewart said of his former teammate.

Then he added with a smile. “I sat there as soon as they threw the checkered, I didn’t slow down right away because I’m like, the faster I go, the less of a running start he’s going to have to plow into me. But he pulled up, he saw me, and gave thumbs up, and I’m like, great, I didn’t want to have to fight today.”

Stewart was in exactly the kind of “good place” you would expect of someone who hadn’t won in three years and was in the midst of his final season of competition.

He was vintage Smoke — a mix of self-deprecating humor and plenty of wisecracks.

“I’m going to go to Zaxby’s and eat chicken all week just in support of (Camping World Truck Series driver) John Wes (Townley),” Stewart joked about the tussle near the end of Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. “Hey, I’m all for it. I’m glad to see somebody had some emotion and actually did something with it. I’m going to live my life through him for this week. At least I did last night.”

Stewart said he was most grateful to earn his crew chief Mike Bugarewicz his first Sprint Cup Series victory and to see his crew “who have stuck with me” celebrate in Victory Lane after nearly four years of emotionally charged up and downs.

From the look on Stewart’s face, to the emotion of family members that love him, to his crew’s celebratory cheers, to the hundreds of fans that stayed long after the race and broke into a simultaneous chant of “Ton-y, Ton-y, Ton-y” while Stewart took photos in Victory Lane — this will be one of the most popular wins of the year no matter what.

“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, and normally the restarts and the chaos on the restarts make you mad,” Stewart said. “We didn’t have that today.

“I told (Bugarewicz) when he asked me before the restart, he goes, ‘are you having fun?’ I said, yeah, I’m not even mad at anybody yet, and that’s pretty amazing to be within 15 laps of the finish and I’m not mad at anybody. 

“I was at least hopeful that that was going to continue, I just didn’t know that we were going to have a chance to win the race with it.

You know, this may be our only opportunity to get in the Chase, to get a win this year,” Stewart said. “I believe in etiquette and I believe in racing guys the way that I want to be raced, and that’s not the way I like to race those guys, but Denny knew what was at stake for us and what the opportunity for us was. 

“Most of those guys did. I thought it was a great race. Like I said, we didn’t see guys shoving each other off the racetrack. It was good racing all day.”

And a happy ending anyone could appreciate.

“I got the flag at the flagstand, and I thought, well, I’ll turn and come back down pit road backwards,” Stewart explained with a wide smile. “And then I was like, this is my last time here. I want to go one more lap, and I went one more lap.  I didn’t just drive the lap, I drove up there and where the crowd was, I did burnouts and revved the motor onto the chip. I’m sure Hendrick is going to love that.

“But it just was fun to say, ‘hey, thanks.’ This place has meant a lot to me. It’s nice to ‑‑ 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.

Then he quickly added, “I’m going for more, just for the record. I see pens going crazy. I’m not saying I’m laying down, I’m saying if that’s the only one I get this year, then I’ll be content. But I don’t think ‑‑ I think you’ve known me long enough, you guys know that I don’t lay down for anything. All you’ve got to do is just give me that little bit of hope, and I’ll run with it.”


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