Smoke's Three-peat--An Appreciation

Tony Stewart with the Sprint Cup - NASCAR photo

Tony Stewart with the Sprint Cup - NASCAR photo

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Tony Stewart keeps breaking records.

The guy's got more championships in different types of motor racing than any modern driver. 

Just think about it: midgets, sprints, Silver Crowns, Indy cars, NASCAR stock cars. 

All that seems to be missing is an endurance race or two for Stewart to take his place in the true pantheon of American auto racing talent.

A guy who chose his NASCAR car number, when he began to drive for his own Stewart-Haas Racing team, in tribute to the great A.J. Foyt, whose temper tantrums paved the way for Kyle Busch's explosions--yet Smoke learned from them and moved on, a man who suffers no bull crap from anyone--especially cheeky journalists asking dumb questions, an athlete whose eating habits are suspect at best--Tony Stewart embodies these traits and carries forward with a kindness that never seems out of place.

Winning his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Tony Stewart becomes the first driver to win under the Winston, Nextel and Sprint Cup banners, using three different types of point accumulations, as well. He's won with the Chase, without the Chase and on a tie-breaker (this year). He's the first owner-driver to win since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.  You want your great champion? You got him.

Stewart was nowhere in August and said he didn't belong in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Then he won half the Chase races and gave NASCAR exactly what it needed and wanted for this championship--a tie-breaker with season-leading (but only single race-winning) Carl Edwards. It was Chevy vs Ford, too, and came down to the last lap of the last race of a 36-total and 10-race title Chase.

It just doesn't get any better than this. Everyone's said it and facts tell the tale of the tape, don't they?

Stewart, three points behind Edwards at the green flag of the Ford 400 on Homestead-Miami Speedway's 1.5-mile progressively banked oval, collected debris from Kurt Busch's transmission failure, early in the 267-lap contest, and he and the entire No. 14 fought back from that and from two problematic pit stops. Stewart performed a driving clinic that I, for one, will never forget.  HIs slide jobs and in-the-zone weaves were a thing of beauty. He masterfully carved up a field that was filled with champions.

"Honestly, being put in a position where we just didn't have anything to lose, we had the opportunity to gain win the championship," Stewart recalled. "For us, I guess it took a lot of the pressure away that we had."

All of those previous championships helped Stewart grab his third NASCAR title: "You know what going into that last race is like. You know the strains, the pressure that go along with it."  While congratulating Edwards on doing a great job, "I felt from our side, I thought it was just a little bit different from the standpoint that we just didn't have that pressure going into it like I thought we would."

Jabbing with Edwards through the final three races, Stewart didn't have to needle very hard, but the fact that he won the final race, Edwards finished second (on two new tires that couldn't reach Stewart's four-Goodyear pace) and they finished with the tie-breaker giving Tony the title on wins 5-1, Stewart knew he had the edge - and that he had to win to earn it.

Stewart later screened the final 35-40 laps where he and Edwards did the mano-a-mano duel that marked their battle to the end.  Seeing what he did from outside the car, "It was fun to watch.  Obviously we knew from the driver's standpoint what was going on; it was fun to watch what Carl was able to do in the car.  It added to the experience of what we went through. I was more nervous watching the race--even though I knew what the outcome was--than I was being in the car. I enjoyed it."

So did we, Tony. So did we.

© 2011 Anne Proffit

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