Stage set for another Stewart magic run

Tony Stewart and members of the No. 14 team celebrate their victory in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
Photo by Brian DeGruchy/The Racing Experts

By Tyler Head
July 1, 2016
Staff Reporter

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Sonoma Raceway was a comeback track for a second consecutive season.

In 2015, it was Kyle Busch earning his first Cup win since he returned to the series following a crash at Daytona which broke his leg sidelining him for 11 races.

This year,  Tony Stewart earned his first win at Sonoma, after bouncing back from an off-season injury which held him out of the season’s first eight races.

As a result, the scenarios for Busch and Stewart entering the series’ first visit to a road course were  similar.

Busch and Stewart each earned waivers by NASCAR to compete in the Chase for the series’ championship, provided they could claw their way into the top-30 in points and win a race.

For Busch, the road to the top-30 had a couple of large bumps at the very beginning. Solid runs at Charlotte and Pocono were overshadowed by a 36th place finish at Dover and a 43rd place finish at Michigan, which each came as a result of wrecks.

Analysts and fans alike started to doubt whether Busch could make the top-30 in time, let alone win a race. Busch went on to win several races and the championship.

Stewart’s struggles this season have been tough. Since his return, at Richmond, good finishes have been hard to come by – before Sunday’s race his best effort of 6th came thanks to the relief efforts of Ty Dillon at Talladega – and a combination of wrecks and plain old bad luck had turned good runs into poor finishes.

In the four races leading up to Sonoma, Stewart had just one top ten finish, and the other three races - each marred by the aforementioned bad luck and accidents – resulted in finishes of 24th or worse.

Then Sonoma happened.

A track which offers a change in pace for a series that is known for oval racing completely changed the outlook for Busch’s and Stewart’s seasons. Busch won his first championship.

For Stewart, the dramatic move in Turn 11 Sunday to re-take the lead from Denny Hamlin, after losing it just half a lap earlier, brought both joy and relief from a stretch of his career that has been plagued by issues both on and off the track.

When asked in victory lane what the win–his first since Dover in 2013meant to him, an exhausted Stewart said with a smile, “It’s special, trust me.”

Tony Stewart practices for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
Photo by Brian DeGruchy/The Racing Experts

At this point, it might seem like a big leap in logic to think the 45-year-old could follow in Busch’s tire tracks and pull off a similar feat by winning the championship in his final year competing in NASCAR’s top series.

Despite the success of his teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, Stewart and company have struggled to find the balance Tony likes in the car, and as a result strong runs have been few and far between over the last few seasons.

Skeptics will say a win on a road course, while a great accomplishment, will not, in and of itself, suddenly cure his problems.

While a championship for Stewart isn’t likely, legends are often looked upon so fondly because they do what skeptics believe can’t be done, they pull off what is believed to be improbable, if not impossible.

In 2011, after struggling through most of the season - and when even he thought he couldn’t do it - Stewart pulled off the unthinkable by winning five of the ten Chase races en-route to his third championship.

Stewart’s rally in the final half lap of Sunday’s race at Sonoma proves, if nothing else, he still has some driving  magic left in him; perhaps even enough to make him a four-time champion when the checkered flag flies at Homestead.

Will Tony Stewart make the Chase this season?
Too early to tell.
Sage Quotes