After missing the first eight races of 2016, Tony Stewart did exactly what he needed to do to put himself in position to make the postseason.
And, strangely enough, it mirrors what Kyle Busch did last season.
In his eighth race back after missing the first eight due to a back injury sustained while riding sand rails in January, Stewart visited Victory Lane at Sonoma Raceway after losing the lead to Denny Hamlin, putting Hamlin in the wall and then regaining the lead — all in the last several hundred yards of the 110-lap race.
Last year — almost to the day — Busch won his first win of the season at (where else?) Sonoma, after missing the first 11 races of 2015 due to a leg and foot injury he received in the season-opening NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona. The win came in his fifth start after returning, and even more impressively jump-started a stretch in which he won four times during a five-race stretch.
Stewart’s task of getting into the top 30 in points, however, is a little less daunting than Busch’s. Stewart sits 32 in the standings, just nine points outside the 30th spot and a place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
When Busch won his first race of 2015 after missing all that time, he was 136 behind 30th place, all the way back in 37th. Ultimately, it worked out for him in the end, netting his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship as season’s end.
Could Stewart do the same?
It’s possible. If so, what a way to draw the curtains close on the career of a legendary driver. Since this is Stewart’s final season behind the wheel, Stewart using his Sonoma win as a springboard to do what Busch did last season would set the NASCAR world on fire (in a good way). This was also his first win in 85 starts. His last win? Over three years ago on June 2, 2013, at Dover International Speedway.
Stewart led the race’s final 22 laps, while runner-up Hamlin regrouped from hitting the wall and paced the field for a race-high 33 laps. Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10.
Edwards started on the pole with AJ Allmendinger starting on the outside of the front row.
How did Stewart’s first win of the season help his standing in Lionel Racing’s Power 10? Did he even crack the top 10? What about Hamlin’s near win? How did the rest of the top-10 finishers fare in this week’s rankings? All these questions and more are answered below.
(Note: Only the 10 drivers receiving the highest average rankings are shown. The number of spots they’ve moved since the previous Power 10 are shown in the parentheses.)
1. Kevin Harvick (–): Kevin continues to hold steady in the top position after finishing sixth. Although he only has one win, his 7 top fives and 13 top 10s also keep him atop the points standings.
2. Carl Edwards (+2): Carl has three consecutive top-eight finishes to go along with two wins. If he keeps this up, he could be holding his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series trophy comes season’s end.
3. Kurt Busch (+2): Kurt has a league-leading 14 top-10 finishes through the first 16 races, which a large part of why he’s second in points and third in Lionel Racing’s Power 10.
4. Kyle Busch (+3): After finishing in the top four in nine of the season’s first 11 races, including three wins, Kyle needed a change of fortune after four consecutive 30th-or-worse finishes. His seventh-place finish on Sunday was just what he needed.
5. Martin Truex Jr. (+5): There were a couple times late in the race where it looked like Martin could snatch the lead away from the race leader. Fortunately for the other drivers he didn’t, but it would’ve been big as it would’ve been the first time he had won twice in the same season.
6t. Chase Elliott (-4): Although it wasn’t the kind of finish that has become the norm during Chase’s rookie season, a 21st-place finish in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series road-course event still isn’t too shabby.
6t. Joey Logano (–): In the first race following his win at Michigan, Joey finished third — his best finish at Sonoma. Don’t be surprised to see him climb the rankings over the next couple of weeks.
8. Brad Keselowski (-5): Two wins and fourth place in the standings have Brad safely nestled in the power rankings; however, it’s hard to fathom a 15th-place finishing dropping you five spots.
9. Jimmie Johnson (-1): It may seem like it’s been an eternity since Jimmie last visited Victory Lane, because we’re so used to seeing him and expecting him to be there. However, it’s only been 11 races. He’ll be back.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (NR): Dale finished 11th at Sonoma and is currently ranked 12th in the points without a win. Just imagine what a win would do for the sport’s most popular driver — in the stands, the retailers, the standings and in our power rankings.