Chris Trotman, Getty Images for NASCAR
Forty eight hours later, he looked like the happiest man on earth.
Stewart -- a three-time series champion who has announced plans to retire at the conclusion of the 2016 campaign – held court with the media Friday at Sonoma (Cal.) Raceway, criticizing his fellow drivers and complaining that “driving a Sprint Cup car does not make me happy right now.
"I had Jamie McMurray screw us up,” said Stewart following Friday’s final practice. ”He was trying to do a qualifying lap. Some of the things some of these guys do nowadays doesn't make sense. When we had Dale Sr. and Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett… they were able to get their arms around these guys and make them listen. There is really nobody here that can do that anymore. Everybody is out of control out there.”
Stewart also doubled-down on his earlier promise to return to open-wheeled Sprint Car racing next season, for the first time since the on-track death of Kevin Ward, Jr. in August of 2014.
“I'm ready to do stuff that makes me happy, and driving a Sprint Cup car does not make me happy right now,” he said.” A lot of things have changed. The atmosphere has changed. There is so much stuff in the garage area that has changed that it was time for me to make a change with it. I've dedicated 18 years of my life to this series and it's done great by me. I've made a great living doing it, but at the same time, there are things I want to do other than be at a NASCAR track three days a week for 38 weekends a year.
“I never dreamed there was going to be a time that I would think about something like this,” he admitted. “It wasn't overnight. There were weeks that I would think, `Man I really want to go to Monaco and see the Monaco Grand Prix,’ or ` I really want to go to Knoxville for the A-main of the Knoxville Nationals or the Kings Royal at Eldora.' There are things I want to do that, because of our schedule, I don't have time to do.
“It's time for me to do them."
Blaine Ohigashi, Getty Images for NASCAR
Friday’s media session was vintage Stewart; outspoken, opinionated and unrepentantly cantankerous. In hindsight, it may also have been therapeutic. For as soon as the green flag flew Sunday afternoon, Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet – a car he ranked no better than a Top-15 prospect prior to the start -- was a contender, running lap times equal to the leaders while gradually making its way forward from a 10th-place starting spot.
A savvy final pit stop, taken three laps sooner than the other frontrunners, combined with a fortuitous debris caution in the late going to push Stewart into the lead. Once there, the Indiana native did the rest, prevailing in a thrilling, last-lap battle with Denny Hamlin to win the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The win – Stewart’s first since first since June 2013 at Dover International Speedway -- erased the biggest roadblock standing between him and a berth in the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, virtually ensuring that he will race for the championship in his final season as a NASCAR driver.
Wrapped in the emotion of a tumultuous Sonoma Victory Lane, Stewart was understandably in a happier frame of mind. Though clearly exhausted -- both physically and emotionally – the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion said the importance of Sunday’s triumph was already beginning to hit home.
“They’re all good,” said Stewart, slumping onto the front fender of his battered Code 3 Associates Chevrolet. “It doesn’t matter where you get them. Especially at a place you’re (racing) for the last time, it means a bunch. It’s special, trust me."
Asked about his final-turn pass of Hamlin, Stewart joked, “If it had been a street fight, he would have two black eyes."
Hamlin agreed, saying, "Once I knew he had position and we had a wall on the other side of us, I knew there was a pretty good chance that we were going to go into that wall. I didn't know if he would physically spin me out, (but) I thought there was a very good chance of it, because that's his opportunity to get in the Chase. This was by far the best he's run all year, and he's in his final season. So his give-a-s#it factor was probably really low.
“Tony has been ultra-fair to me,” admitted Hamlin. "He has treated me really well my entire career. It's not like I gave him (the win) by any means. He gave me an opportunity to move him, and I did. Then I got it back. It's just part of the deal."
Stewart was in rare form for his post-race media availability, as well, laughing that Camping World Truck Series driver John Wes Townley "made my Top-5 hero list of all time" by lobbing on-track punches at adversary Spencer Gallagher the night before. In the end, however, he made it clear that Sunday’s win was not a mission-accomplished moment for him, or his Stewart Haas Racing teammates.
"I'm okay if this is the last one I get, “he said. “But I'm not content. I want more. You guys know me well enough to know I'm not laying down."
Prior to Sunday’s race, Stewart shared some prophetic final words with first-year crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, saying, “If I get angry and start yelling at you today, just remind me to have fun.”
“We always talk about that,” revealed Bugarewicz. “What’s most important -- for all of us -- is to just enjoy it, take it in. You have to do that.”
In the end, though, the day was best summarized by Stewart’s 78-year old father, Nelson, whose relationship with his son has been as tempestuous as any other in Smoke’s world.
“I knew they were going to have to take it away from him,” said the elder Stewart, as a steady stream of well-wishers offered congratulations and a mammoth crowd roared its approval. “He wasn’t going to let them have it. You get him that close to the checkered flag, and he’s not going to let it go.
“That’s the world lifted off him, for sure,” he said. “They caught me crying on TV, and I don’t care.”