Welcome back, Smoke – now get fired up!

Published 11:35 am Saturday, July 2, 2016

If there’s something familiar about Tony Stewart returning from serious injury to score that surprising and hair-raising win Sunday at Sonoma that put him on the edge of a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, there is a reason why: Kyle Busch.

Busch, like Stewart, missed the opening months of the 2015 season recuperating from devastating injuries, and what was his first win of the season: his road-course jaunt through California wine country.

Stewart, who suffered a fractured vertebra in a dune buggy crash in January, missed eight races. A year ago, Busch fractured his foot and leg in an accident during the first Xfinity race at Daytona, knocking him out of 11 Cup starts.

Both drivers came back sooner than expected.

Joey Logano pointed out the parallel of the two drivers’ fates in a post-race interview, shrugging and saying, “I don’t know what the deal is with Sonoma.”

Busch used his Sonoma win to take three of the next four races (Kentucky, New Hampshire, and ‘the Brick’), and eventually the Cup championship. Busch was 136 points from being ranked 30th after his 2015 Sonoma win. Stewart is a mere nine points from being ranked 30th in the standings, a requirement you have to meet to qualify for the Championship.

Still, with just one win, doubts remain whether he can repeat Busch’s performance over an extended period.

Before Sunday, Stewart was mired in a career-worst 84-race winless streak, struggling most weeks just to be competitive. In the previous 76 races before Sonoma he only had three top-five finishes and led just 161 laps.

When Busch returned last season he was just 30 years old and entering his racing prime. Stewart just turned 45 three weeks ago.

People forget it’s actually been a tough three years for ‘the Smokester’. Stewart not only broke his back this year but also his right leg in 2013 and there’s the personal tragedy when Kevin Ward was accidentally killed at the sprint race in 2014.

In 2011 Stewart was considered an afterthought when the Chase started, having gone winless during the regular season, and at one juncture even saying he didn’t deserve to be in the hunt because he and his Stewart-Haas Racing team flat-out stunk.

So it raised some eyebrows when Stewart won the Chase opener at Chicago, then followed by rolling off four more wins in the next nine Chase races en route to the championship in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards. That run may have summed up Stewart, both as a driver and as a man.

Could Sonoma be the beginning of a second improbable, unexpected push toward another championship?

“(This win) shows he’s got what it takes if you give him the right stuff, and he’s going to push hard when he needs to,” Logano added.

In two races leading up to Sonoma (Pocono and Michigan), Stewart qualified exceptionally well (sixth and third) and ran in the top 10 at Michigan. Because he missed those first eight Cup races, Sunday was just Stewart’s eighth event working with his rookie crew chief, Mike Bugarewicz, who came over from Kevin Harvick’s Stewart-Haas team.

“We’re not there yet, but we’ve still got time to get there, and we’ve gained a bunch of ground in a short amount of time,” Stewart said in a post-race interview. “If we can keep making that ground and keep getting better, who knows?

“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,” he added. “But I’ve felt like if we got things right that it was still there. I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to myself.”

Maybe Stewart showed everybody Sunday it might not be smart to dismiss him even when the evidence says otherwise. I like that attitude and I wouldn’t call that – blowing smoke.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.