Even after he missed the first eight races of his final NASCAR Sprint Cup season as a driver, there wasn’t much worry about whether Tony Stewart would be able to make up enough ground to finish in the top 30, the first of two prerequisites for getting into the season-ending Chase for the Cup.
The other prerequisite — winning a race — was the greater unknown.
Sunday afternoon, Stewart took care of it, edging Denny Hamlin to take the checkered flag in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma.
The victory — which saw the Columbus native get passed by Hamlin on the final lap of the road course, only to take back the lead on the last turn — snapped a winless drought that spanned just over three years, dating back to a June 2, 2013, triumph at Dover, Delaware.
More importantly, it likely sets the stage for Stewart to close his career in fairy-tale fashion.
The win moved him up from 35th to 32nd in the Sprint Cup standings, just nine points back of the all-important No. 30 position with 10 races left before the 10-race Chase for the Cup begins in September.
Given his current trajectory — Stewart has put together his two best weekends of the year back to back — there’s really no reason to doubt that the No. 14 car will be in the Chase. The pressure, essentially, is off.
Now, Stewart can enjoy the rest of his final ride and set himself up to do what so few sports figures are able to do — walk away on top.
Going out as a champion is the ultimate storybook ending, and almost nobody does it. John Elway and Peyton Manning went out as Super Bowl winners, but such cases are incredibly rare — usually, athletes don’t know when to quit (Wizards’ Jordan, I’m looking in your direction).
Stewart doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who will try to hang around too long. He’ll still be heavily involved in racing, sure. But I don’t get the sense that his Sprint Cup retirement will end up being as temporary as so many others.
Which is good, because this final run could be a fun one. Can “Smoke” close out with a fourth Cup championship? It’s certainly in play — and there’s a neat blueprint that’s already been laid out for Stewart to follow.
Remember last year, when Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races and came back to win the Chase? His first win during that comeback run came at — you guessed it — Sonoma.
Might history repeat itself? We’ll just have to wait and see. But the journey there just got a heck of a lot more interesting.
Strap in, folks. This is about to get good.
Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.