No matter the starting spot, Tony Stewart seems to flourish on road courses. The Toyota/Save Mart 350k NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at the road course in Sonoma, Calif., was no different, as Stewart rallied from his 24th-place starting spot to finish a strong second to race winner Clint Bowyer.
“Compared to where we were on Friday and Saturday, I think we had an awesome day today, especially being able to just drive through the field like we did,” said Stewart, a winner of seven road-course races who has nine top-10 finishes in 14 career Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma, including three second-place finishes. “We had those two long runs there, and that let us race these guys one-on-one. We got the caution at the end when we needed it, just didn’t have enough laps left. If we had another lap or two, we were going to make it interesting.”
An unlucky break during a routine pit stop on lap 72 actually proved lucky for the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 team of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), when after not getting the fuel cell entirely full, a caution period on lap 83 allowed Stewart to pit for fuel and four fresh tires.
With a full tank of gas, Stewart could go the race distance without another pit stop, something the rest of his competition already could do. But Stewart had fresh Goodyear tires, unlike seven of the eight cars ahead of him when the race restarted on lap 87. All but eighth-place Brian Vickers were on old tires, and the extra grip propelled Stewart to the front.
In ninth place when the race restarted on lap 87, Stewart’s charge toward the leaders was methodical, with his surgical passes taking place in the final hairpin of the 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course.
Stewart quickly jettisoned two cars after the first lap of green-flag racing and then started reeling in the top-six. He took sixth from Martin Truex Jr. on lap 89, fifth from Kyle Busch on lap 94, fourth from Vickers on lap 102 and third from Jimmie Johnson on lap 103.
Stewart appeared to have to settle for third until a late-race caution for a two-car spin in turn seven set up a green-white-checkered finish. The gap Bowyer and second-place Kurt Busch held over Stewart vanished.
The resulting shootout allowed Stewart to edge Busch for second on the last lap. But time ran out on Stewart’s pursuit of Bowyer, as Bowyer won the Toyota/Save Mart 350k by .829 of a second over Stewart.
“We had an unfortunate-fortunate break at the end,” said Stewart, who finished among the top-three for the third straight Sprint Cup race, including second-place finishes in the last two races. “On the second-to-last pit stop, something happened on plugging the fuel in and we didn’t get it full. So that second-to-last caution there, we got a chance to come in for fuel and four tires, and that got us up there. We just had eight or 10 laps fresher tires than those guys. We still had to fight our way through there. We had a really good car. We just took all day to get the track position.
“I’m really proud of Steve Addington (crew chief) and the guys. They really worked hard the last two days. We just couldn’t get happy with it on Friday or Saturday. We just couldn’t seem to get the speed that a lot of the guys who were putting up big numbers at the top of the board were able to run. We couldn’t even run within a second of them the last two days. But the team gave me a car today that was really, really good. We started too far back, but I think myself and Brian Vickers probably had two of the best cars. Obviously the No. 51 (Kurt Busch) and the No. 15 (Bowyer) were really strong all day, too. Glad we got those cautions at the end that got us bunched up. That got us some spots.”
The spots earned on the racetrack also gained Stewart some spots in the points. He climbed three positions in the championship standings to fifth. Stewart has 533 points, 63 back of series leader Matt Kenseth and one point ahead of sixth-place Kevin Harvick.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans/Children’s Tumor Foundation Chevrolet for SHR, finished 18th after struggling with an ill-handling car for much of the race. Newman maintained his 13th-place standing. He has 453 points, which puts him 143 points behind Kenseth and 37 behind 10th-place Brad Keselowski.
Bowyer’s win at Sonoma was his sixth career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his first on a road course. Trailing Stewart to the line in third was Kurt Busch, while Vickers and Johnson rounded out the top-five. Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger and Joey Logano comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were two caution periods for a total of seven laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 112-lap race, which was extended two laps by a green-white-checkered finish.