Jenna Fryer

SONOMA, Calif.: Tony Stewart sat slumped on the stairs inside his team transporter a year ago reflecting on the worst slump of his NASCAR career.

He had a migraine that day at Sonoma Raceway and spoke softly about his plight. Stewart didn’t know what to do to return to his glory days. He had no idea how to adapt to NASCAR’s rules package and seemed thoroughly defeated.

Asked that day about his confidence, he meekly admitted he was suffering.

“What’s that? I should Google that and see if I can find the meaning of that word,” Stewart said. “I don’t have any confidence.”

That shell of Stewart was nowhere to be found at Sonoma over the weekend, where Smoke was in vintage form. He was cranky, candid and comical. All the ingredients that make him competitive.

So when Denny Hamlin slipped by him in the seventh turn of the final lap in Sunday’s race on the road course where Stewart has been such a force for so many years, no one doubted that this throwback version of the three-time champ would bullishly try to seize the lead and the win.

He made his move in tricky turn 11, where Hamlin overshot the corner and left enough room for Stewart to squeeze inside. Stewart then ran him up the track and into the wall as he charged toward the finish line and his first checkered flag in three years.

Stewart’s peers pumped their fists out their windows to applaud him. Some ran to his car, or met him in victory lane. Crew members lined the wall to high-five him as he celebrated. It was a show of support not often seen in NASCAR, maybe not since the late Dale Earnhardt’s win in the 1998 Daytona 500.

It was an important win for Stewart, who is retiring at the end of the year, and for NASCAR, which needs its biggest stars in the spotlight. The win will earn Stewart a spot in the championship field should he crack the top 30 in points, and he’s currently 32nd in the standings but only nine points back.