SONOMA, Calif. — For at least one weekend, "Smoke" was back.
Tony Stewart returned to Victory Lane in Sprint Cup for the first time in three years in vintage fashion Sunday — refusing to let Denny Hamlin steal a win away at Sonoma Raceway on the final lap.
Now Stewart, 45, might have a shot at a fourth NASCAR title in his final season before retirement.
Stewart, mired in an 84-race skid dating to 2013, won the Toyota/Save Mart 350 to stop a slide of poor performances, injuries and personal turmoil that has tarnished the end of his career. He missed the first eight races this season with a back injury suffered in February in an off-road wreck.
Stewart, like eventual champion Kyle Busch last year, now has to crack the top 30 in points to convert his win into a Chase for the Championship berth. He moved up to 32nd in the standings Sunday, nine points out of 30th.
"My guys have been through this whole disastrous roller-coaster the last three or four years and never backed down. They've never quit on me. There's days I've quit on myself," Stewart said. "In this day of social media where everybody is a cricket … on social media, they sit there and chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp until they are in front of you and then they don't say a damned word. I 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."
Anyone who has followed his career knows that Stewart is best when he's in a bad mood, and Smoke was ornery all weekend in wine country. He complained about young drivers, snarked that NASCAR will have no tough guys once he retires and grumbled he has no fun in a Cup car anymore.
Well, he sure had fun Sunday.
The co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing took the lead on fuel strategy during a caution with 24 laps left and held on.
Hamlin made it interesting by pouncing on a Stewart mistake to snatch the lead in Turn 7 on the final lap. Stewart grabbed it back in tricky Turn 11, diving to Hamlin's inside then pushing him toward the wall on the exit.
"I made mistakes the last two laps, I had just a little bit too much rear brake for Turn 7, and wheel-hopped it two laps in a row," Stewart said.
It was Stewart's 49th career Cup win and eighth on a road course, one shy of Jeff Gordon's record.
Dozens of foes pumped their fists out their window to salute Stewart on his victory lap as his father, Nelson, wiped away tears.
"To have three cars in the Chase, to have Tony's confidence up, to have him battle Denny Hamlin like that, this is the best way for a champion like him to go out," teammate Kurt Busch said. "He deserves this now."
"Just stoked for him," six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. "He is a great friend and has been through so much."
Hamlin, Stewart's former teammate who has become somewhat of a protector to his one-time mentor, indicated no hard feelings. Hamlin said he made a mistake in letting Stewart snatch the lead.
"Looking in the rearview more than looking out front," Hamlin said. "I just slid up a little bit in the middle and allowed him to get inside me. I knew he was going to put me in the wall. All is fair in love and war."