Stewart Takes Sonoma On Final Turn

After what we saw Sunday the answer is simply yes.

Another caution tightened the pack, but that merely set the stage for the dramatic finish to a race that was much cleaner than previous stops on this track.

SONOMA, Calif. - For at least one weekend, Smoke was back. Now he's in position to do what Jeff Gordon did last season - compete for the championship in his final season.

But can he recapture the magic of his last championship season, when Stewart went winless for the first 26 races before scoring a remarkable five victories in the 2011 Chase? He missed the first eight races of this season, his last as a NASCAR driver, with a back injury suffered in an off-road vehicle accident one week before the season opened. It was a long shot considered the way he has run the last three years, but those who know Stewart knew not to count him out. I just overshot the corner a little bit.

If anyone could sympathize with Hamlin's plight on Sunday, it was A.J. Allmendinger. (So) I and listened 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.

"We're nine out now but there's a lot that can still happen", said Stewart.

"It was a great, fun race". Only 10 laps were run under four total cautions, and 35 of the 40 drivers finished all 110 laps.

Tony Stewart, pugnacious veteran of 18 seasons in NASCAR's highest circuit and devotee of dirt tracks and go-kart battles, might be harder to pass than any driver of his generation.

Denny Hamlin was hot on Stewart's heels for those final laps. Stewart dive-bombed Hamlin and sent him into the wall and drove on to take the checkered flag.

"I was following him and saw him wheel-hop two laps in a row on 7 and that allowed me to get into position", said Hamlin.

"I didn't know if he would physically spin us out", Hamlin said. He now has punched his ticket into his last Chase as he retires at the end of the season.

This is Stewart's third win on the 1.99-mile road course and his 49th victory in Cup.

While the ending may been frustrating, Hamlin didn't begrudge Stewart's aggressiveness.

On the hairpin final turn, Stewart grabbed the inside line, tapped Hamlin's rear bumper - Hamlin then kissed the wall - and Stewart muscled his way back into the lead for the 0.625 second margin of victory.

"I felt a nudge when I got down there [in Turn 7], and he knew where it was, and he did the right thing doing it there", Stewart said. After chugging a Coca-Cola, he slumped to the ground and sat alongside his vehicle.

Hamlin put a little distance between him and Stewart as they approached the final turn, but it wasn't enough. I'm not that smart, obviously, so don't ask me, I don't know.

Rounding out the top 10 were, in order, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch.

The reception for Stewart by his peers was similar to the reaction the late Dale Earnhardt received when Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500. Stewart has been protesting his entire career, often against NASCAR as well as fellow drivers, promoters and journalists.

"I've made a lot of mistakes and I've used up my fair share of mulligans, so I'm glad to be here", Bell said after the win. "He deserves this now".

Just as Stewart pulled into pit road, race officials ordered a caution flag. "But if I could get to him, he knew what was coming".

Despite being one of the best road course racers in NASCAR, Allmendinger has just one victory - two years ago at Watkins Glen.

Third-place finisher Joey Logano has an explanation why drivers didn't rough each other up on Sunday. We definitely had a vehicle that could have and should have won.

"I couldn't believe how clean a race it was", Stewart said.