With what went down at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday, it was next to impossible to jump up and down like a kid about to be let loose in a candy store.
For all the heartaches, all the bad luck, all the stress and pain, Tony Stewart finally grabbed a dose of nirvana at a track he’s more than familiar with.
Stewart got a break when a well-timed pit stop put him in front, then he worked a final restart to perfection and had to hold off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin to win the Toyota/SaveMart 350. It was Stewart’s eighth road-course win (third at Sonoma) and 49th career Sprint Cup win, but it meant so much more than an average race day.
The last time Stewart won came at Dover on June 2, 2013. Three years and 24 days later – a stretch of 84 races – Stewart found his way back to Victory Lane.
And if you can’t appreciate how it unfolded, please go back and check yourself for a pulse, heart or soul.
At lap 83, Stewart and his No. 14 Chevrolet sat in 17th place. Five laps later, the race’s fourth and final caution came out. All of a sudden, Stewart found himself in front of the field.
He didn’t let it go over the final 22 laps, including one precarious restart and two bump-and-run exchanges with Hamlin in the final three turns.
Just like Kyle Busch before him one year ago, Stewart – despite missing the first eight races – has met the first requirement for making the 2016 Chase. One checkered flag in the win column.
Now comes the harder part. Stewart still needs to get to the top 30 in points, but he’s closer than you think.
With 10 races to go until the Chase, Stewart is 32nd in points, but only nine behind Brian Scott and three behind Regan Smith. Since he returned eight races ago, Stewart had struggled with only one top-10 and three straight early exits.
But after a seventh-place run at Michigan two weeks ago, it had the feeling of a turn-the-corner moment for the entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization.
When the checkered flag flew, the picture captured by the Fox cameras of Stewart’s father, Nelson, wiping away tears showed you just how special the breakthrough moment was. Stewart led laps only one other time on the 2016 season at Kansas, but ended up 12th.
In the bigger picture, Stewart may have the win, but he can’t afford to backslide into finishes he endured at places like Dover (34th), Charlotte (24th) and Pocono (34th) if he wants one last shot at a fourth Sprint Cup title.
Smoke is also one win away from becoming the 13th driver in NASCAR history to reach 50 career wins. After what he’s been through since his last one, from the broken leg that cost him 15 races in 2013 to the tragic accident involving Kevin Ward and missing the first eight races this year due to a non-racing injury, Tony Stewart has definitely risen from the ashes.
Stewart said he wasn’t having much fun driving a Sprint Cup car to the media on Friday. What a difference a little luck can make to improve the feeling.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile D-shaped oval), Daytona Beach, Fla.
-SPRINT CUP: Coke Zero 400, Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET/4:45 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.
2015 champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
-XFINITY SERIES: Subway Firecracker 250, Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 miles, 100 laps.
2015 champion: Austin Dillon.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until July 7 for the Kentucky 225 at Kentucky Speedway.
Side note: At least John Wes Townley and Spencer Gallagher can go to their neutral corners after their little wrestling match at Gateway that happened with five laps to go Saturday night. It's all raw emotion, though, and it definitely got everyone talking.