Tony Stewart Beats Hamlin For First Win Since 2013

Tony Stewart
Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images

Just five months ago, no one was sure if Tony Stewart would even be able to get back in race car, let alone make a bid for the Sprint Cup title is what was supposed to be his final season.

Now, after a grueling effort to get back in the driver's seat, Stewart is back in Victory Lane with a shot to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup field and secure himself a fourth Sprint Cup championship.

Stewart beat out Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin with a last-lap, last-turn pass to win Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 to snap an 84-race winless streak and clear a huge hurdle in his effort to make in into the Chase field and finish out his Sprint Cup career as a champion.

Joey Logano was third, followed by polesitter Carl Edwards and Martin Truex, Jr.

Stewart's victory was his first since winning at Dover back in June of 2013, and marked his eighth career road-course victory – tops among active drivers.

"They're all good; it doesn't matter where you get them," said Stewart his victory in his final start at Sonoma. "Especially at a place you're going to for the last time, it means a bunch. It's special, trust me.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"] "I made mistakes the last two laps. I had just a little bit too much rear brake for Turn 7, and wheel-hopped it two laps in a row. But, I felt a nudge when I got down there and (Hamlin) knew where it was and he did the right thing doing it there; but if I could get to him, he knew what was coming. He told me he was proud of me. He knows what it means. We were teammates for a long time and we respect each other a lot."

The victory capped a tumultuous couple of seasons for "Smoke" where is seemed everything was aligned against him.

First, there was the broken leg he suffered in a sprint car crash in August of 2013 that out him out of action for the remainder of the season, and then missed several races toward the end of the 2014 season after another sprint car incident that caused the death of follow driver Kevin Ward, Jr.

Then, last September, Stewart announced he planned to retire from Sprint Cup competition after a 17-year career – hoping to make the Chase and go out on top in his final season.

But then in January, Stewart suffered a fractured vertebra in his back after landing hard driving a dune buggy with friends out in the California desert, forcing Stewart to sit out the first eight races of the season.

With Stewart out of action, it seemed unlikely he'd be able to compete for another title in 2016, but Stewart defied the odds and was back in the car after just three months – making his return at Richmond in April.

NASCAR also granted Stewart a medical exemption for the Chase, making him eligible to make a run for the title – if, Stewart could win a race and climb into the top 30 in points.

After Sunday, at least one part was out of the way.

Stewart drives his battered Chevy to victory lane
Rusty Jarrett for Chevy Racing

"You can't crack the door open with me on the last corner of the last lap and expect me to not take it," said Stewart of the pass on the final turn. "I'll kick the door in or drive a bulldozer through it to keep it open. When you're in a scenario like that, I don't know if I'm going to get another scenario or opportunity to win another race the rest of the year.

"Knowing that that could be the difference between making the Chase or not making the Chase, I wasn't going to be cordial in the exit of the corner and I roughed him up pretty good. If it has been a street fight, he'd have had two black eyes after that."

Much like his remarkable recovery form his back injury and his return to the driver's seat, Stewart's win in Sunday's race seemed just as unlikely.

Having started tenth in the 40-car field, Stewart was not an odds-on favorite to win, and struggled throughout the early stages of the event – falling as far back as 25th.

Realizing he was losing ground quickly on old tires, Stewart and his crew chief Mike Bugarewicz took a chance and pitted under green with 25 laps to go just to keep from getting lapped and to salvage a decent finish.

It turned out to be the move that won Stewart the race.

Just two laps later, the caution waved debris, bringing the field to pit race and moving Stewart to the head of the field for a restart with 20 laps to go.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"] With Hamlin looming in his mirrors, Stewart tried to open up some distance, but was cut short when the final yellow flag of the day waved with 17 laps to go to give Hamlin another shot at Stewart.

Once under green again, Hamlin soon had his hands full with Truex, Jr., who passed Hamlin on the reatart to take second and quickly cloed the gap on Stewart.

Despite a fast Toyota, Truex, Jr. was never able to make a move past Stewart, and with eight laps to go Hamlin battled back and squeezed past coming through the esses to regain the second spot.

The race was on as Stewart saw his lead slowly slip away until the white flag lap, where his Chevrolet slipped slightly coming out of turn seven, allowing Hamlin to get by for the lead.

Seeing his only chance for a Chase berth slipping through his finger, Stewart poured it on and closed back in on Hamlin, and dived to the inside coming through the hairpin turn 11. The two made contact as Hamlin locked the front wheels trying to make the turn, fishtailing into the outside wall as Stewart powered back out in front and across the stripe the victory.

After the race, Hamlin admitted he was looking at his mirrors instead of looking ahead coming into the final turn.

Denny Hamlin led a race-high 33 laps at Sonoma on Sunday
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

"I was looking rearview more than looking out front," said Hamlin, who led a race-high 33 laps. "I still got in there with a wheel hop, I was just a little bit in the middle and needed to get a good run. Once he (Tony Stewart) had the inside position, we weren't going to drag race it out. I knew he was going to put me into the wall. He was doing what he had to do and we did what we had to do in turn. All is fair in love and war.

"This is definitely a step in the right direction on the road course, but man utterly disappointed."

Point's leader Kevin Harvick finished sixth, followed by Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch.

Race Results

Pos. # Driver Make Start Laps Led Status Points
1 4 Tony Stewart Chevy 10 110 22 Running 44
2 11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 6 110 33 Running 41
3 22 Joey Logano Ford 7 110 0 Running 38
4 19 Carl Edwards Toyota 1 110 24 Running 38
5 78 Martin Truex Jr Toyota 3 110 0 Running 36
6 4 Kevin Harvick Chevy 25 110 3 Running 36
7 18 Kyle Busch Toyota 8 110 2 Running 35
8 31 Ryan Newman Chevy 17 110 0 Running 33
9 5 Kasey Kahne Chevy 19 110 0 Running 32
10 41 Kurt Busch Chevy 4 110 0 Running 31
11 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevy 13 110 0 Running 30
12 42 Kyle Larson Chevy 5 110 0 Running 29
13 48 Jimmie Johnson Chevy 15 110 0 Running 28
14 47 AJ Allmendinger Chevy 2 110 20 Running 28
15 2 Brad Keselowski Ford 12 110 0 Running 26
16 27 Paul Menard Chevy 9 110 3 Running 26
17 1 Jamie McMurray Chevy 21 110 0 Running 24
18 16 Greg Biffle Ford 32 110 0 Running 23
19 10 Danica Patrick Chevy 11 110 3 Running 23
20 20 Matt Kenseth Toyota 23 110 0 Running 21
21 24 Chase Elliott Chevy 16 110 0 Running 20
22 3 Austin Dillon Chevy 24 110 0 Running 19
23 21 Ryan Blaney Ford 26 110 0 Running 18
24 13 Casey Mears Chevy 14 110 0 Running 17
25 6 Trevor Bayne Ford 28 110 0 Running 16
26 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr Ford 27 110 0 Running 15
27 43 Aric Almirola Ford 29 110 0 Running 14
28 7 Regan Smith Chevy 31 110 0 Running 13
29 38 Landon Cassill Ford 37 110 0 Running 12
30 34 Chris Buescher Ford 36 110 0 Running 11
31 83 Matt DiBenedetto Toyota 33 110 0 Running 10
32 23 David Ragan Toyota 30 110 0 Running 9
33 44 Brian Scott Ford 22 110 0 Running 8
34 98 Cole Whitt Toyota 35 110 0 Running 7
35 93 Dylan Lupton Toyota 38 110 0 Running 0
36 46 Michael Annett Chevy 40 109 0 Running 5
37 32 Patrick Carpentier Ford 34 108 0 Running 4
38 30 Josh Wise Chevy 39 97 0 Engine 3
39 95 Michael McDowell Chevy 20 91 0 Rear Gear 2
40 15 Clint Bowyer Chevy 18 5 0 Electrical 1

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