The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visited Sonoma Raceway for the 28th consecutive year at the Toyota/Save Mart 350. This marks the first of two road-course events on the schedule. However it was “Smoke” in his final NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway before he retires at the end of the season that produced a spectacular farewell show.
After giving up the lead to Denny Hamlin on the final lap, Tony Stewart won the Toyota/Save Mart 350 with a pass on the last corner. It was his first win in 84 starts since his previous win in 2013. He won at Sonoma for the third time. Only Jeff Gordon, who did it five times, has won the race more times in its 28-year history.
All the buildup prior to the race was about strategy, as in it would take timely maneuvering to win on the 1.99-mile course. After missing eight races at the beginning of the season while recovering from an off-season back injury. Stewart, driving the No. 14 Chevrolet for the Stewart-Haas Racing team he co-owns, needed the win to stay in the hunt for the Chase. After the win, he is in 32nd place, nine points shy of 30th. To make the 16-car postseason field, drivers must finish in the top 30, no matter how many wins they have.
“It’s special for us,” Stewart said after the eighth road-course win of his career. He savored the final duel with Hamlin. “We were teammates a long time (with Joe Gibbs Racing) and respect each other a lot.”
Having the good fortune to get fresh tires two laps before the final caution, Stewart went to the front as other leaders pitted before a restart with 22 laps left in the 110-lap race. After the restart, he appeared to be well on his way to victory. However the closing laps were intense as Stewart worked hard to hold off the rest of the field stalking him. Then, on one of the most thrilling final laps in race history, Hamlin passed Stewart on Turn 7 only to see Stewart sneak past him on the inside of the Turn 11.
Hamlin said he knew Stewart would go for broke on the final turn. “It was his opportunity to get into the Chase,” he said. “How many more chances will he have? His give-a-(bleep) factor was probably pretty low.” He said Stewart deserved to win. “It’s not like I gave him one by any means,” he said.
On the final turns, Hamlin said, “My car was the worst it was all day. I didn’t have any forward drive.” On Turn 11, “I didn’t run a low enough line. Once I knew he had position, I knew he wasn’t going to leave it to chance and have a drag race” to the finish line.
Stewart got the inside and pushed Hamlin to the outside, where he clipped the wall. Hamlin lost by six-tenths of a second.
“I couldn’t believe he missed Turn 11,” Stewart said. “I was shocked. I was going to kick the door open or drive a bulldozer through it. … I wasn’t going to be cordial.”
On his way to Victory Lane, Stewart was told by Hamlin, “I’m really proud of you.” Stewart said, “I had to do it to you” — meaning run him into the wall. Hamlin: “I know.”
“It’s really cool for Tony Stewart,” Logano said. He said the crowd was “witnessing a history moment right now in NASCAR.”
Logano said he was hoping to steal a win on the final lap, “watching the other two and thinking they would crash each other. We were on the cusp of trying to sneak one by.”
There were just four cautions in a race that had nowhere near the number of bruising collisions of previous years.
All told, the lead changed hands 12 times among eight drivers before Stewart took home the win.