SONOMA, California — Tony Stewart, in the final season of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career, carved out another memorable moment Sunday.
The 45-year-old driver claimed his first top-series win in three years with a victory in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. It was Stewart’s third career win at Sonoma and the eighth victory of his career on a road course.
“Especially at a place you’re going to for the last time, it means a bunch,” Stewart said. “It’s special, trust me.”
Before heading to victory lane, Stewart had to endure a last-lap battle. Denny Hamlin moved Stewart and took the lead on the final lap, but Stewart ultimately returned the favor to retake the lead and drive to the win.
“I made mistakes the last two laps,” Stewart said. “I had just a little bit too much rear brake for turn seven 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.”
Hamlin finished second, Joey Logano was third, Carl Edwards fourth, and Martin Truex Jr. finished fifth.
“I should have not left the bottom open,” Hamlin said. “I thought, ‘If I leave the bottom open, maybe he will think he can get there in a different kind of way.’ I just overshot the corner a little bit.
“Still a pretty good day. This is definitely a step in the right direction on the road course, but, man, utterly disappointed.”
Stewart made a pit stop with 24 laps remaining in the 110-lap race. A yellow flag was displayed for debris a lap later, and when his competitors headed to pit road, Stewart stayed out and inherited the lead.
The yellow flag waved one more time on lap 92, and Stewart had Hamlin alongside him on the front row for the restart. Truex, though, took second from Hamlin when the race returned to green and pressured Stewart for the lead.
Hamlin was able to get back by Truex for the second spot inside 10 laps to go, and with Hamlin and Truex battling for the runner-up position, Stewart pulled away. Hamlin was able to finally shake Truex and close in on Stewart.
“Feel like we had the best car; we just couldn’t get track position,” Truex said. “Every time we would get past the guys that we were racing on the race track, caution would come out, and guys would beat us out of the pits. Little frustrated with that; thought we had the car to win, and then that last set of tires, we just got in position and we just got too loose.
“I’m not sure what happened, but all in all, a solid weekend for us; we qualified third and finished top five. We just burned it up at the end trying to get Smoke (Stewart), and I gave up a couple spots, but I had to try to go for it. The rear tires were gone at the end.”
Hamlin took the lead on lap 50 and was in front most of the laps until Stewart passed him. Danica Patrick did lead a handful of laps by staying out longer during a cycle of green-flag pit stops that got underway around lap 68. On lap 76, Hamlin got by Patrick, who still hadn’t pitted, to retake the lead.
Edwards started the race with AJ Allmendinger next to him on the front row. Allmendinger was able to get the lead from Edwards on a restart on lap nine. Edwards retook the lead, though, getting off pit road ahead of Allmendinger during a cycle of green-flag pit stops around lap 20.
During the cycle, drivers including Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick stayed out longer and led laps. By lap 31, Edwards was back up front and Allmendinger and second.
Another green-flag cycle of stops got underway around lap 40, but before all the field cycled through stops, the yellow flag waved for debris on lap 46. Edwards and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch were among those who pitted just before the caution. Edwards pitted again under the yellow, but Busch stayed out and inherited the lead. Hamlin, who had also pitted just before the caution, stayed out to restart second and took the lead on the restart.