For at least one weekend, Smoke was back.
Tony Stewart returned to victory lane for the first time in three years in vintage fashion — refusing to let Denny Hamlin steal a win at Sonoma Raceway away from him on the final lap Sunday.
Now he’s probably got a shot to run for a fourth NASCAR championship in his final season before retirement.
Stewart, mired in an 84-race losing streak dating to 2013, finally won to stop a slide of poor performances, injuries and personal turmoil that has tarnished the end of his career. He missed the first eight races of this season, his last as a NASCAR driver, with a back injury suffered in an off-road vehicle accident one week before the season opened.
It meant Stewart would have to win a race and crack the top 30 in points to have one last shot at glory before he stepped out of the No. 14 Chevrolet for good. It was a long shot considered the way he has run the last three years, but those who know Stewart knew not to count him out.
And anyone who has followed his career now that’s Stewart is best when he’s in a bad mood, and Smoke was ornery all weekend in the picturesque wine country.
He complained about young drivers, snarked that NASCAR will be without any tough guys once he retires and grumbled he has no fun driving a Cup car anymore.
Well, he sure had fun on Sunday.
The 45-year-old took the lead on fuel strategy during a caution with 24 laps to go, and had to hold on after another yellow flag stalled the race. The final restart came with 14 laps remaining — the same number as Stewart’s car — and he held off a trio of Toyota drivers for his third career victory at Sonoma.
Hamlin made it interesting by pouncing on a Stewart mistake to snatch the lead away from Stewart in the seventh turn of the final lap. Stewart grabbed it back in tricky Turn 11, where he dove to the inside of Hamlin and as the two raced side-by-side, Stewart pushed Hamlin toward the wall.
Stewart got past Hamlin and charged to the checkered flag with the entire side of his car crumpled and his tires slightly smoking from the contact with Hamlin.
“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,” Stewart said. “I felt a nudge when I got down there and he 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.”
“Everyone knew he wasn’t going to use his brakes there,” Haas said.
Dozens of drivers then pumped their fists out their window to salute Stewart on his victory lap while his father, Nelson, wiped away tears. Crew members lined the wall to slap his hand, and teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were among the drivers to rush to speak to Stewart while he was still inside his car.
So did Hamlin, a former teammate of Stewart’s who has become somewhat of a protector to his one-time mentor. As leader of the Driver Council, Hamlin got the council to split the cost of a $35,000 fine Stewart received this year for criticizing NASCAR.
“He told me he was proud of me, he knows what it means,” an exhausted and emotional Stewart said in victory lane. After chugging a Coca-Cola, he slumped to the ground and sat alongside his car.
“We were teammates for a long time and we respect each other a lot.”
Hamlin, meanwhile, didn’t indicate he gave the win to Stewart but chalked it up to his own mistake to allow Stewart to snatch the lead away from him.
“Looking in the rearview more than looking out front,” Hamlin said. “I just slid up a little bit in the middle and allowed him to get inside me. I knew he was going to put me in the wall. All is fair in love and war.”
Pole-sitter Will Power picked up his second IndyCar series victory of the year, winning by 0.74 seconds after holding off Tony Kanaan’s last-lap surge at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
Kanaan shaved about a half-second off the gap with Power after the white flag went up. But he couldn’t catch up as the cars winded their way toward the end of the 202-mile Kohler Grand Prix on the 14-turn track.
It made for an exciting finish in IndyCar’s first race at the rural Wisconsin road course since 2007.
Capps stays hot
Ron Capps won the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio, for his third Funny Car victory in the last four events and fourth of the season.
Capps beat Courtney Force in the final with a 3.956-second run at 317.49 mph in a Dodge Charger. He opened a 130-point lead over second-place Force in the season standings.
Shawn Langdon won in Top Fuel, Jason Line in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Langdon raced to his second consecutive victory, topping J.R. Todd with a 3.846 at 319.75.
Line won for the seventh time this year, edging teammate Greg Anderson with a 6.678 at 208.42 in a Chevrolet Camaro.
Krawiec topped Andrew Hines at 6.926 at 194.72 on a Harley-Davidson for his third victory of the year.