Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart has long been known as the “People’s Champion” and his win Sunday in the Toyota / Save Mart 350 proved to be very popular not only with the fans but also up and down pit road. Many of those fans remember the days when he was always a threat to win anytime a green flag waved and was a yearly contender for the title.
Stewart had announced before the beginning of the season that this would be his last year driving in the series. It had been 111 Sprint Cup races since he last won on June 2, 2013 at Dover. During that span of races, he only competed in 84 races due to missing time because of injuries and a personal tragedy. This season began with him on the sideline having to watch another driver pilot his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet as a broken back suffered just before the start of the season forced him to miss the first eight races of the season.
His late start to the season has left him to have to take the same route that Kyle Busch took to his title run last season by meeting the guidelines that a driver win a race and finish in the top-30 in points. Busch like Stewart got his win early in his comeback but had a larger point deficit to make up to get inside the top-30.
Sunday’s win left Stewart just nine points shy of cracking the top-30 but he has ten races left before the Chase field is set. In an interview immediately following Sunday’s win he felt very confident that he and his team could make up the deficit but readily admitted that next weekend’s stop at Daytona International Speedway would be one of those wild card type races where a driver could get put out of the race by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The win was the 49th of his career and the first for his crew chief Mike Bugarewicz who as it turned out made the call of the day on when to bring his driver on to pit road for his last pit stop. That stop was on lap 86 and it turned out to be the perfect time to pit as the caution flag came out a couple laps after the completion of the pit stop. When the leaders came in during the caution, Stewart inherited the lead on tires that only had a couple of laps on them.
Once the race went back to green flag racing on lap 91 of the 110 lap event, Stewart held on to the lead for the remainder of the race as he led every lap at the start/finish line. Even though he led every lap, it still took a last lap pass for him to secure the win. Denny Hamlin was able to pass Stewart going into turn seven after he wheel-hopped his Chevrolet on the final lap. The race wasn’t over though as Hamlin’s Toyota washed up the track just enough in turn 11 to allow Stewart to get the nose of his car underneath and force Hamlin up into the outside wall as he was completing the pass.
The win completed a weekend in which Stewart acknowledged to the media that he no longer was having as much fun racing in the series as he had in the past. But the huge grin that he was displaying in victory lane as he was being congratulated by fellow drivers leads you to believe that maybe the fun had returned as he now knows he has all but locked up his spot in the Chase with the opportunity to run for the title in his final season in the sport.
PIT NOTES: Tony Stewart and Ernie Irvan were inducted into the Sonoma Raceway Wall of Fame for their contribution to the history of the road course. Stewart’s win on Sunday was his third at the track with Irvan posting two wins. Jeff Gordon is first on the all-time road course win list with nine but Stewart will have the opportunity to tie him later this season at Watkins Glen as he has 8 career wins on the two road courses that are part of the Sprint Cup schedule.
Event: Coke Zero 400
Track: Daytona International Speedway (2.5 mile tri-oval, 310 of banking in the turns)
Date: July 2, 7:45 p.m.
Defending Champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.