What happened on the final lap at Sonoma? Dissecting the key to Tony Stewart’s win

Getty Images

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.”

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson on his NASCAR team and his approach to Le Mans

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns from injury

“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson is building a team and pointing to Le Mans

Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”