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Tony Stewart answers his critics with win

George Diaz
Orlando Sentinel

Tony Stewart begins his NASCAR farewell tour in Daytona Beach this weekend.

Forget whatever has happened between February and now.

Stewart, like everybody else, is trying to move on from the circumstances — aka (hashtag)Stinkeroocity — that preceded his game-changing victory at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday.

Stewart, a three-time Cup season champion, had been in a tailspin, recovering from a back injury and stuck in traffic as a backpacker until busting out dramatically on the quirky road course. He lost the lead to Denny Hamlin on the last lap at Sonoma, only to scoot past Hamlin on a last-turn pass.

Welcome back, Mr. Stewart.

The victory broke an 84-race winless streak and, more importantly, vaults him into the mix of 16 Chase championship contenders. Stewart comes to Daytona just nine points behind in the standings to be eligible for the postseason. It should be easy-peasy to work his way into a mandatory top-30 spot before the field is set after Richmond in September.

To put Stewart’s struggles in perspective, he is in 32nd place in the standings after moving up three spots with the victory. He has three Top 10 finishes in eight starts after missing eight races because of his back rehabilitation following a dune-buggy accident.

Many folks assumed that the road course would bring a wild-card winner into the mix because of the right-hand turn variables.

I trust nobody had “Smoke” in mind.

“I guess the one thing that I did think about is in this day of social media where everybody is a cricket, a lot of people are crickets,” Stewart said after the race. “On social media, they sit there and chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp until they’ve got to be in front of you and then they don’t say a damned word. And 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, but I’ve felt like if we got things right that it was still there.”

He’s there all right, and that’s a good thing for NASCAR. In a sport that seems to be getting more homogenized — lots of good guys but not enough drivers with an edgy disposition — Stewart brings a wonderful mix of competitive cockiness and cantankerous personality.

And now, in his final Cup season, he gets a likely shot at a championship.

A very good thing for NASCAR.

“I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to myself,” he said. “I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’m still happy about my decision to make the change I’m making next year. But after Jeff (Gordon) set the bar pretty high last year winning a race in the clutch to get to the last race at Homestead, just to be able to be in the Chase, if we can make it, (would be good).”

Let’s be clear: Stewart isn’t big on any sentimental storylines. He just wants to race, without the pomp and circumstance. If someone tried to give him a pony, like the pair Gordon received unexpectedly in Texas last year, Stewart would likely leave them in the garage area.

He has a singular focus: Racing a stock car. But the noise about Tony Stewart on social media is now a good thing.

Chirp, chirp. Tony Stewart is back.