Tony Stewart showed strength Sunday at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, wheeling his No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS from his seventh-place starting spot to as high as second in the Save Mart 350k NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race before ultimately finishing 12th.
Stewart and crew chief Chad Johnston went into the 110-lap race around the 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course with a deliberate, two-stop strategy which nearly delivered a top-five finish.
The strategy, however, forced Stewart to tackle the undulating layout in California wine country with old tires while conserving fuel anytime the caution flag waved.
Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion with 48 career victories, was up to the task. When the strategy put him in second place for a lap-27 restart, Stewart held steady among the top-five despite those behind him routing their way to the front with the benefit of fresher tires.
When Stewart made his first scheduled pit stop during a caution period on lap 30, it dropped him to 32nd when the race restarted since so many other drivers were on a three-stop strategy and pitted earlier.
Even with numerous cars in front of him, Stewart kept his composure and kept to the plan Johnston had orchestrated. By the halfway mark, Stewart was up to sixth.
His second and what should’ve been final stop came under green on lap 68. Four tires, fuel and a left-rear wedge adjustment was all Stewart needed to return to the track.
As pit stops cycled through, Stewart and Johnston’s two-stop strategy looked good. With 25 laps remaining, Stewart was fifth. And thanks to a caution between laps 80-84, he had enough fuel to outlast many of the drivers around him.
But when the caution flag waved on lap 100 for Casey Mears’ broken axle, everyone’s strategies went out the window.
If Stewart stayed out, he would be a sitting duck, as his old tires would be no match for the fresh rubber of his counterparts.The decision to pit was made. The stop, unfortunately, was a tick slow, and it came at the most inopportune time. With only seven laps of green-flag racing remaining, Stewart restarted 16th. Nonetheless, he used those seven laps to get all the positions he could, rallying his way to 12th when the checkered flag dropped.