It has been a long time since one saw the owner-driver that is Tony Stewart in victory lane. It has been 84 races since that has occurred. But 111 races have been run since Stewart celebrated at Dover in 2013.
What this man has endured for the last three years has changed him as not only a driver, but a man.
It was in August that same year that a sprint car accident put Stewart out of action for the remainder of the season. A broken leg meant the only vehicle he was driving was a motorized scooter around the garage, while he watched Mark Martin and Austin Dillon fill in the rest of the season.
A year later, his life changed entirely, on-track and off.
His incident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr, which is still being dealt with today, made him look at his life away from the track, and what he wanted to do. Although not his fault, the fact he was involved in the death of a fellow driver, he still would carry that burden around. He was no longer looked at as Tony Stewart, NASCAR driver and team owner, but instead as Tony Stewart, the man involved in the incident that took Ward away from his family.
It changed him, and still was changing him all last year when he went winless again, and didn’t seem competitive.
This year, his final time at the wheel for an entire season of Sprint Cup competition, he didn’t start a race for the first two months of the season. An injury he got when on vacation meant he was in a hospital bed with back pain, and couldn’t compete for a championship. Sure, he would have a medical waiver, but he still wasn’t the same Smoke.
Could he find the magic that he once had, and could he find a way to get to victory.
Finally, on Sunday, the cards played right into his favor. He was in position on the final lap, but one mistake took that lead away. Yet, he wasn’t backing down. After three years, he was within striking distance of exorcising his demons, and showing that he can still get it done. A bump, a slam, and a nail of the throttle meant Smoke was victorious at the Sonoma Raceway.
Not one individual at that track was unhappy with the result, because this was a driver and a man that had endured more in three years than many experience in a lifetime. Sure, he may not be in the Chase yet, but just being able to win a race for him was a weight that needed to be lifted. Fans, photographers, media members, and even fellow teams may never understand how big this win is for him.
As a driver and owner, the significance may be seen easily, because of what it means for points and a possible championship. But, as a human being, after all he has dealt with, it means more.
At the beginning of the year, it was said that “Smoke Will Rise” once he returned. Well, it has happened. Smoke…Has…Risen, and if his past history is any indication, he’s just getting warmed up.
RESULTS: 1-Stewart 2-Hamlin 3-Logano 4-Edwards 5-Truex Jr. 6-Harvick 7-Kyle Busch 8-Newman 9-Kahne 10-Kurt Busch
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Earnhardt Jr. 13-Johnson 15-Keselowski 20-Kenseth
CAUTIONS: 4 for 10 laps. Laps: 8-8 (#15 accident-T8); 47-49 (Debris); 88-90 (Debris); 94-96 (#95 stopped on track).
LEAD CHANGES: 12 among 8 drivers. C. Edwards 1-8; A. Allmendinger 9-24; P. Menard 25-27; K. Harvick 28-30; C. Edwards 31-46; A. Allmendinger 47; Kyle Busch 48-49; D. Hamlin 50-70; A. Allmendinger 71-72; D. Patrick 73-75; D. Hamlin 76-87; A. Allmendinger 88; T. Stewart 89-110.
TIME OF RACE: 2 Hrs, 42 Mins, 13 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 80.966 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.625 Seconds
CHASE GRID: 1. Kyle Busch-452 (Points), 3 (Wins); 2. Edwards-510, 2; 3. Keselowski-506, 2; 4. Johnson-469, 2; 5. Harvick-562, 1; 6. Kurt Busch-527, 1; 7. Logano-493, 1; 8. Truex Jr-469, 1; 9. Kenseth-430, 1; 10. Hamlin-421, 1; 11. Elliott, -89 (From 1st-Harvick); 12. Earnhardt Jr, -149; 13. Newman, -160; 14. Dillon, -162; 15. McMurray, -164; 16. Kahne, -177.
*Tony Stewart is now eligible to make the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. He must make it into the top-30 in the standings to be placed in the Chase Grid. Currently he sits in 32nd, nine points outside the threshold of being in the Chase.