Even Tony Stewart was stunned while watching Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota slow and sweep wide to the left into the final corner at Sonoma Raceway.
Suddenly, the inside line along the multicolored curb – along with a playoff berth and Stewart’s first victory in 84 races – materialized.
“I was probably more surprised than anybody,” Stewart said. “As good as he was braking into (turn) 11 all day, I couldn’t believe he missed the corner. … I was shocked that the door was open like that.
“You can’t crack the door open with me on the last corner of the last lap and expect me to not take it. I’ll kick the door in or drive a bulldozer through it to keep it open.”
How did the win elude Hamlin, who seemed in command before the final right-hand turn?
It started by Stewart seeming to give it away in Turn 7 with a wheel-hop that caused him to miss the corner, handing the lead briefly to Hamlin (visible at the :40 mark of the video below).
Stewart had wheel-hopped his No. 14 Chevrolet in the same spot on the penultimate lap, but Hamlin wasn’t able to pounce on the lead as effectively because his No. 11 also suffered a wheel-hop in Turn 7 on the final lap.
Though he took the lead after slight contact with Stewart and quickly built a lead of several car lengths, Hamlin knew all wasn’t right entering the final corner.
“I didn’t run a low enough line in Turn 11 from wheel hopping in Turn 7,” Hamlin said. “I got the rears hot, wheel-hopped it a little bit again, got out of line, and obviously gave him the inside line.
“My biggest problem all day is I wasn’t very good on the second half of the track. I thought my car was very good up until Turn 7, and then down the hill in 11, we just weren’t very fast for whatever reason. It’s a problem I’ve had here for 11 years. I was trying to gain all the time I could down that hill knowing I needed a big gap.”
The gap was necessary because Hamlin was anticipating a bump-and-run shot from Stewart if he were close enough to reach his rear bumper (Stewart confirmed this, chuckling, “I wasn’t going to be cordial in the exit of the corner … If it has been a street fight, he’d have had two black eyes after that.”).
NBC Sports analyst Parker Kligerman, who races in the Camping World Truck Series, believes that Hamlin’s haste to avoid contact might have been caused him to “overcook the entry slightly.
“He went into turn 11 with the idea that his only chance to win was to somehow escape Tony before the apex, so Tony couldn’t move him,” Kilgerman said. “He braked late, started to get rear (tire) lockup and couldn’t turn into the corner because the rear of the car was so unsettled.
Kligerman said the high tire wear at Sonoma and the propensity for drivers to fiddle with brake bias also could have contributed to Hamlin making a mistake – particularly because stock cars on road courses are “inherently unsettled in the rear in hard braking zones because of weight transfer and pitch.”
While taking the lead through the seventh turn, Hamlin also ran off line and increased the likelihood of dirt and debris on his tires that would have made his car harder to control entering the final corner.
As Hamlin’s rear tires seemed to lock slightly (though without the telltale wisps of tire smoke and violent shaking that typically accompany wheel-hopping on a road course), Stewart already was on the accelerator.
“Tony had released the brake early at this point with full intentions of using as much entry speed as he could manage and an early turn in to get to Denny,” Kligerman said. “Tony got there and at this point there was nothing Denny could do.”
The overhead shot at the 3:15 mark of this video below shows how much Hamlin slid out of the groove while seeming to brake much later than Stewart (and subsequently decelerating much harder).
Would Hamlin have done anything differently if he could replay the final corner?
“Just run slower through Turn 11 and force (Stewart) to go on the high side,” Hamlin said. “I just had a feeling he was going to drive in there and turn us around anyway, so I was trying to do all I could.”