No matter how good or mesmerizing an athlete is, eventually, time and other factors prey on their performance. Only a few continue to succeed at a high level at the end of their career.
Jeff Gordon left on his own terms, winning a race and contending for the championship last year in Miami. Tony Stewart is leaving this year and could have the opportunity to exit as Gordon did last year if things go his way.
That both scored victories in their final season — Stewart won Sunday at Sonoma — is a rarity in NASCAR. Often victory lane is closed in a driver’s final season whether it is because of the driver, team or other factors. Richard Petty didn’t win in his final eight seasons. Rusty Wallace didn’t win in his final season, although he did make the Chase back when 10 drivers made it instead of 16. Bill Elliott won in his final full-time season in 2003 but continued driving in select events the next nine years without a win. Many others have had similar fates.
Stewart is aware of the chatter about him. How some have suggested that injuries have conspired against him, how much the tragic sprint car accident in New York took out of him and how much the missed time in recent years left him behind his competitors.
“I guess the one thing that I did think about is in this day of social media where everybody is a cricket, a lot of people are crickets,’’ Stewart said Sunday of what winning in his final season means. “On social media, they sit there and chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp until they’ve got to be in front of you, and then they don’t say a damned word, and listening to people say I’m old and washed up, I know how old I am. I know I haven’t ran good for the last three years, but I’ve felt like if we got things right that it was still there.’’
That’s one of the secrets of Stewart. The three-time series champion cares what others think. It might not seem that way with what can be a gruff exterior, but he’s well aware of the detractors.
It’s been easy to scrutinize Stewart since his last victory in June 2013 at Dover. He hadn’t won in his last 84 Sprint Cup starts before Sunday. He’s finished 20th or worse 44 times since that Dover win.
Stewart showed at Sonoma that when put in the right position, he still can win. It helped that a caution came shortly after crew chief Mike Bugarewicz called Stewart to pit road, putting Stewart into the lead. Then it was a matter of holding off the field — and getting by Denny Hamlin on the last corner after losing the lead.
What Stewart displayed late is something Joey Logano, who finished third, saw early in the race from the 45-year-old driver.
“It still shows he’s got what it takes if you give him the right stuff, and he’s going to push hard when he needs to,’’ Logano said. “I noticed it from lap one. I started right next to him, and he was hammering right off the bat, and I said, ‘All right, so we’ve got that Tony Stewart today.’ There’s two different ones. It was the aggressive one all day, and obviously we saw that going into Turn 11.’’
Hamlin took the lead in Turn 7 when Stewart’s car wheel-hopped, and Hamlin slipped underneath. Stewart came back when Hamlin drifted wide and failed to negotiate the hairpin properly, giving Stewart the chance to get underneath and pass for the win.
Now the question is what kind of a threat Stewart will be in the playoffs. His team has made progress in the last few weeks, but it still has a way to go to challenge the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, Team Penske’s duo and Jimmie Johnson.
The benefit for Stewart and his team is they have 10 weeks to get ready for the playoffs with what should be little pressure once they climb into the top 30 in points. Stewart is nine points behind heading to Daytona.
“Daytona is going to be a big hurdle,’’ he said. “As much as you want to go win that thing, it’s crisis management more than anything, I think, because I think if we can get through that, I feel like our performance is good enough to get us the rest of the way there. We’ve just got to take care of ourselves to get through there.’’
Something else to consider is that with eliminations in the Chase, Stewart’s teams needs to be only 12th best in the opening round, and then the points are reset. The second round includes Talladega, which can alter any Chase, and he’ll need to be in the top eight to advance.
“We’re getting closer to being where we need to be,’’ Stewart said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve still got time to get there, and we’ve gained a bunch of ground in a short amount of time, and if we can keep making that ground and keep getting better, who knows.’’
Tony Stewart’s win Sunday was the first Cup victory for crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. It is the fourth consecutive year a crew chief has scored his first Cup win at a road course (either Sonoma Raceway or Watkins Glen International).
Adam Stevens earned his first Cup win at Sonoma last year with Kyle Busch — the first of five races they won on the way to claiming the series title.
Crew chief Brian Burns scored his first win in 2014 at Watkins Glen with AJ Allmendinger.
In 2013, crew chief Chad Johnston scored his first Cup win at Sonoma with Martin Truex Jr.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
AJ Allmendinger was set to restart sixth after the final caution until NASCAR penalized him for a tire violation on his pit stop. Allmendinger dropped to 35th for the restart. He rallied to finish 14th.
Had he not been penalized, he likely could have scored a top-10 finish, if not a top-five finish. That penalty could have cost him about 10 points.
With 10 races left until the Chase field is set, there still is time to overcome such a deficit, but it doesn’t make Allmendinger’s task easier if he doesn’t win a race.
Winner Tony Stewart should climb into the top 30 in points and be Chase eligible soon if not after Saturday’s race at Daytona. That provisionally would put 11 different winners in the playoffs. Last year, there were 11 different winners before the playoffs began.
If Allmendinger does not win, then points will determine if he makes the playoffs. After Sunday’s race, he’s 18th in the standings, 20 points behind Kasey Kahne for the final transfer spot at this moment after climbing a position. With another new winner or two possible, the key spot to focus on would be Austin Dillon, who is 14th in the standings (he would be 15th if Stewart were Chase eligible at this point). Dillon is 33 points ahead of Allmendinger. The most points a driver can make up on another driver in a race is 47, so Allmendinger has a ways to go.
“You are not guaranteed anything until the checkered flag.’’ Allmendinger said Sunday. “It is part of life. We win and lose as a team. We have to get our stuff straight if we actually want to be a Chase team and consider ourselves a Chase team. Another fast race car — that is all I can ask for.”
— Clint Bowyer had finished in the top 20 in four of the past six races for HScott Motorsports before placing 40th on Sunday.
— Dylan Lupton finished 35th in his Sprint Cup debut Sunday.
— Kurt Busch’s 10th marked his fifth top-10 finish at Sonoma in the last six races.
— Carl Edwards placed fourth Sunday. He has four top-five finishes, including a win, in his last six races there.
— Jimmie Johnson’s 13th ended a streak of seven consecutive top-10 finishes at Sonoma.
— Kasey Kahne’s ninth marked his fourth consecutive top-10 at Sonoma.