Tony Stewart back in Victory Lane #SmokeWillRise

Jun 27 2016 - 7:44am

In what appeared a perfectly scripted race for Tony Stewart's last season on Sunday, June 26th at Sonoma Raceway, Tony Stewart found his way back to Victory Lane, the first time since 2013.  Tony Stewart showed that he is truly the "Tony of old" with a perfect orchestrated last lap pass on Denny Hamlin. 

Excerpted Transcript  from Tony Stewart's Post Race Interview in NASCAR Media Center:

Moderator: Tony, that last lap, could you just talk us through that, what that was like for you?

TS: Well, I'll go back a lap before because I think that set up the last lap, to be honest.  When I went down in 7 the second-to-last lap, I wheel hopped it pretty big and Denny got right to us there.  We held him off through the rest of the lap and the first half of the last lap, and then he was really close to us off of 4, enough that I knew I couldn't help but cheat the corner.  I gave him the whole outside.  If he wanted to go around me on the outside, I was going to give him all the room he wanted but I wasn't going to give him the inside.  But I went down and wheel hopped it again, and he saw it from the lap before and he knew he needed to take advantage of that.  I assume he did.  He got us there.  But when he went by us, that was probably the one thing I was most proud of is I didn't panic and jump in the gas and spin the tires real hard trying to stay with him and just trying to get off the corner like I had and just tried to stay with him through the corner there and get through 10 and thought maybe we could stay close enough that we could have a shot back at him.

            When he went into 11 I was probably more surprised than anybody.  I couldn't believe -- as good as he was braking into 11 all day, I couldn't believe he missed the corner.  They said he wheel hopped it, but 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.  When you're in a scenario like that, I don't know if I'm going to get another scenario or opportunity to win another race the rest of the year.  We're going to try, but knowing that that could be the difference between making the Chase or not making the Chase, I wasn't going to be cordial in the exit of the corner and I roughed him up pretty good.  If it has been a street fight, he'd have had two black eyes after that.  I used him up pretty hard.  Probably one of the best parts and one of the parts I'll probably remember most about this race was before I got to victory lane and Denny leaning in there and the first thing he says is I'm so damned proud of you.  That meant the world to me.  I mean, I told him right after that, and I said, you know I had to do that, and he goes, I know.

            So that just shows what kind of guys we're racing with and the respect we all have for each other.  You know what's on the line, you know what's at stake, and you know especially at a place like this when it comes down to Turn 11, that's where all the action is anyway.  I couldn't believe how clean a race it was.  Where is that race been for the last eight years we've been coming here?  Normally you get guys driving through each other and over each other and running each other off the road and everything.  We just didn't see a lot of that today.

            Even if we finished 16th or 17th where we were running before, when Mike made the call to come in on the pit stop, I had fun all day, and that was our goal.  We struggled all day on Friday and all four of our cars kind of fought the same problem, and I still don't know what it is, but we still fought it.  Felt like the first two runs of the day we were respectable, and then it seemed like guys got better, and I couldn't match the pace anymore and the harder I ran it the more I made my problem worse.

            It was a matter of -- I think Mike and I either way thought 17th was -- that's just kind of where we were and that's kind of where we were speed-wise, I think, at that time.  But it was like, you know, we had talked about four different scenarios before the race and not knowing how much tires were going to fall off, and that's the thing -- I've had some awesome crew chiefs, but that's something I'm really proud of, that Mike, he will sit there the night before the race, he won't go out, he won't go with me to dirt races and he won't go play when we took crew guys to Six Flags last night and he stayed home and did homework.  We all waved out the window and said bye to him and stopped, hey, you forgot to give us money for the amusement park.  He pointed at me and said I was pointing at the wrong guy.

            But he stayed and did his homework, and that's what I'm really proud of him at how he does that.  He's so detail oriented on that, and all my crew chiefs have been, but they all have their own different style, and that's something about Mike that I really respect and appreciate.

            I got in this morning, and best thing for me to do the night before the race is forget about the race and just go have fun with my guys, and that's what I did.  Then we got here this morning, we talked about literally four different scenarios for how we could run the race, and we knew -- kind of figured by lap 15 of the first stint kind of have a direction which one of those four avenues we were going to go.  We were kind of in the middle of two of them, and then we got kind of shuffled back, and it seemed like when I could run my own pace and run the track the way I want to run it, I can run respectable, but then when restarts and we got kind of jumbled up in the middle there a couple times, and then you've got to fight and you've got to claw and scratch and everything else to get positions there.

            I got fighting with Denny -- not Denny but Brad Keselowski and Newman, and that's two guys that'll make you earn everything you get.  I drove like an idiot because I told them on the radio, I told them, I'm driving like an A-hole out here, and I was.  I was overdriving my car.  I was trying to do everything I could to get as much position early in the run as I could so I could try to run my pace and try to do the things to help save my tires, but I couldn't keep the pace doing it, and I wasn't going to leave anything on the table.

            Like I said, Mike was the one that made that call, and then for the caution to come out on our out lap, it was a perfect scenario for us and gave us the opportunity.

            But I still didn't even feel like we had a shot then.  I thought, well, we might be able to hang on to a top 10 out of this, and that was going to be pretty respectable, I thought.  The great thing was after the restart there, Denny was behind us right away, and then first couple laps we kind of had a nice little margin, and just kind of held it.  And then Truex got by him, and that gave us a little bit of ground back, and vice versa, whoever it was.  That gave me the chance to run the track the way I wanted, and that's where I make speed if I can do it the way I like to do it and know to do it, and I was able to take care of it.

            When Denny got back ahead of Martin, the laps were winding down and he's gaining ground in a hurry.  It's use everything you've got.  If I left anything on the table and ran second and felt like I left anything out there, I was going to be a miserable A-hole the rest of the ride home, too.  I would have got it on both ends.

            I was vulnerable in 7.  I needed to be able to adjust my brakes for 7 and then make a different adjustment on my brakes for Turn 11.  To reach off the steering wheel and make an adjustment sometimes is a distraction, and I felt like I could manage it, and when I made that mistake coming to the white, that's what set that whole last lap up.

            Did I get everything?  (Laughter.)  I think I talked about everything but what I had for breakfast this morning.

Moderator: Harvick said this maybe gives you a little bit of closure for three years of frustration and your dad said that no matter kind of what happens the rest of the year, it's now a good year.  I'm kind of curious how you feel, what you feel this win means in your final season.

TS: 

You know, somebody else asked because I was thinking more of my guys than me.  I'm excited for Mike to get his first win and proud that I could get him a win before the end of the year.  Excited for this team.  My guys have been through this whole disastrous roller coaster the last three or four years and never backed down.  They've never quit on me.  There's days I've quit on myself and they're the guys that send you text messages and call you when you get home like hey, this isn't over.  I'm proud for them, and it meant more for me to get it for them than for myself.

            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.  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, and like I was telling Don Hawk after the race, we had a restart with 14 laps to go on an 11-turn track and I missed three corners.  I don't know how many corners that is, doing the math, but it's, what, 160 corners, 150 some odd corners and I screwed up three of them, and the rest of the time I felt like I was the Tony Stewart that has won here and led laps here in the past.

            I don't feel like I have to prove anything to myself.  I'm happy doing what I'm doing.  I'm still happy about my decision to make the change I'm making next year, but after Jeff set the bar pretty high last year winning a race in the clutch to get to the last race at Homestead, just to be able to be in the Chase, if we can make it -- I mean, we're still not out of the woods yet.  We've still got work to do, and Daytona next week can be -- we're nine out right now.  We can be 39 out by the time we leave Daytona, so there's a lot that can happen still.  But I'm proud of where we are.  For two guys, for a brand new crew chief and driver combination, didn't get a chance to work with each other until the ninth or tenth race, I feel like we're gaining ground here, and I'm proud of those guys.  I'm really proud of what they're doing.

Moderator: You were talking earlier about -- I'm going to use the word grit that you and Jeff Gordon have, and with you all exiting the racing, what do you see ahead for NASCAR racing?

TS: You see Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, there's two guys right there that are filling seats that got this under control.  Brian France, I got in trouble -- well, I started to say I got in trouble once with Brian France.  That's a lie.  I got in trouble a lot with Brian France, but I got in trouble enough one day that I got invited to fly down to Daytona Beach, Florida, and go to his office where I sat in the lobby for 30 minutes waiting on him and then I was only in there for 10 minutes and then I got to drive back and fly home.

            But I remember him telling me, and I'm only saying this because it's the truth, he was right, and it was something that resonated.  He was like, you're not bigger than the sport.  You're a star in the sport, but there were stars before you and there's stars coming after you.  With Jeff and I leaving, Chase Elliott is going to win a championship, and if the Wood Brothers keep going the way they are, Ryan Blaney is going to win a lot of races, too, and potentially win championships.  There's plenty of stock coming along that's got the opportunity to have fantastic finishes and make big names for themselves and 10 years down the road Gordon and I will be like -- the new people watching the sport are going to be, who are these old guys?  I'm going to go this is the guy who took me to the sand dunes and broke my back.  He'll probably do it again.  But we'll have fun.  The sport is healthy, trust me.  There's plenty of good drivers.

            I'm meeting new drivers every day that are in the wings that are running K&N cars.  The hard part for us is you used to read about them in the paper because they were winning a late model race here or there.  These are 16-year-old kids that just got out of -- they're not even out of high school so it's hard to know who they are.  I didn't know who William Byron was and the kid wins a truck race.  I'm like, how did that happen.  Then he won another one.  There's plenty of talent that's coming along.  They won't miss us in about 10 years.