By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
SONOMA, Calif. — Tony Stewart sat slumped on the stairs inside his team transporter a year ago reflecting on the worst slump of his NASCAR career.
He had a migraine that day at Sonoma Raceway and spoke softly about his plight. Stewart didn’t know what to do to return to his glory days. He had no idea how to adapt to NASCAR’s rules package and seemed thoroughly defeated.
Asked that day about his confidence, he meekly admitted he was suffering.
“What’s that? I should Google that and see if I can find the meaning of that word,” Stewart said. “I don’t have any confidence.”
That shell of Stewart was nowhere to be found at Sonoma over the weekend, where Smoke was in vintage form. He was cranky, candid and comical. All the ingredients that make him competitive.
So when Denny Hamlin slipped by him in the seventh turn of the final lap in Sunday’s race on the road course where Stewart has been such a force for so many years, no one doubted that this throwback version of the three-time champ would bullishly try to seize the lead and the win.
He made his move in tricky turn 11, where Hamlin overshot the corner and left enough room for Stewart to squeeze inside. Stewart then ran him up the track and into the wall as he charged toward the finish line and his first checkered flag in three years.
Stewart’s peers pumped their fists out their windows to applaud him. Some ran to his car, or met him in victory lane. Crew members lined the wall to high-five him as he celebrated. It was a show of support not often seen in NASCAR, maybe not since the late Dale Earnhardt’s win in the 1998 Daytona 500.
Even Hamlin, who had just given the race away, went to congratulate his former teammate and one-time mentor.
“Tony has been ultra-fair to me. He’s treated me really well my entire career,” Hamlin said. “It’s not like I gave him one by any means. He gave us an opportunity to move him, we did, and then we got it back.”
It was an important win for Stewart, who is retiring at the end of the year, and for NASCAR, which needs its biggest stars in the spotlight. The win will earn Stewart a spot in the championship field should he crack the top-30 in points, and he’s currently 32nd in the standings but only nine points back.
More important than making the Chase, though, is that it showed Stewart is still the same guy he was before three years of injuries, on-track mediocrity and personal perils. He struggled mightily after breaking his leg in a 2013 crash, then was emotionally devastated after accidentally striking and killing driver Kevin Ward during a New York sprint car race in 2014. He’s facing a civil suit filed by the driver’s family.
He announced last year that 2016 would be his final season as a NASCAR driver, and there have been times some have wondered why he even bothered. He broke his back a week before the season opened and missed the first eight races before returning for a farewell tour that had been kind of meh until the last two weeks.
But Stewart is finally comfortable again in his car and is adjusting to a first-year crew chief. His performance has picked up of late, and with it came the fiery side of Stewart that has been missing for so long. He was once again the closest thing to A.J. Foyt, his childhood hero, that this generation has ever seen.
No one thought there would ever be another Foyt, but Stewart proved them wrong. But there won’t ever be another Stewart, not in this politically correct day and age of not upsetting the apple cart or the sponsors who pay the bills.
Playing it safe never appealed to Stewart, and he never backed down to corporate pressure. There’s been no fine big enough to make Stewart play Mr. Nice Guy, and NASCAR popped him for $35,000 days before his return to the car this year for criticizing what he felt was a lack of attention to a safety issue.
His anger at Sonoma all weekend seemed centered on driver etiquette and the lack of a garage police chief to teach younger drivers the code. That’s the way Stewart learned, and he doesn’t understand why current drivers don’t follow the same rules. In a pre-race interview with Fox, he derisively said with Jeff Gordon’s retirement last year and his coming up fast, there was no one with enough, ahem, courage to keep the new generation in check.
Stewart is right. He’s a dying breed, a throwback to the golden era, a bull in the china shop who should be revered as a rare gem.
His win on Sunday proved he’s still got something left for this final ride, and hopefully he will enjoy it and give the fans something to cheer. After that, he will leave a void that NASCAR will never be able to fill. Not with someone like Smoke.