Stewart won't force the issue in Homestead
In the broadest respect, 52 points is not all that much. But when it's the distance between points leader Tony Stewart and anybody else on the Nextel Cup circuit, it's an almost insurmountable lead to lose in just one race.
Consider the facts. In 35 races this year, Stewart has five victories -- tied for the series-lead with Greg Biffle. But most telling about Stewart's season are his series-leading 25 top-10s and series-leading 17 top-fives.
When a guy's racing like that, he doesn't give up many points. Indeed, if he finishes ninth or better in next weekend's Nextel Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart will win his second Cup title. His average finish this year: 9.9.
"It really is going to boil down to something as simple as going out and doing the same things the same way we did to get ourselves in the lead," said Stewart, who finished fourth Sunday in Phoenix. "So, we're not watching where everybody else is.
"The best thing for us to do is just sit there and do what got us here in the first place. That's strictly to do what we need to do on our car and we don't have to make something happen. Everybody else has to make something happen. You know, it's best for us just to do what got us here."
Stewart hates the phrase "points racing." It's besides the point to him. To him, you race for the win. If you can't get the win, you race for the best finish you can get without taking too big of a risk.
You want to call what he'll do next Sunday points racing? Fine. He just calls it racing, though.
"I think it's just common sense to know that if you make a mistake and don't finish, it's worse than losing one or two spots because you just don't have the car that's going to get it done that day," he said. "It's just something that's always made sense to us. If you wreck the car trying to maintain a spot or get a spot that you think you need, it's risk versus reward. The risk outweighs the reward at that point."
And Stewart has not been afraid to acknowledge that down the stretch. In fact, two races ago at Texas Motor Speedway, Stewart let his closest competitor pass by him as the race came to a conclusion.
"When he caught us, I could have sat there and tried to block like some of these other guys have been doing the whole 10-week Chase, but that's just not how I do things," Stewart said. "I'm still racing guys like I did the first race of the year or the 10th race of the year.
"So, when he got there, I knew he was faster and there wasn't any point in holding him up. I knew it was going to be a 10-point swing but [that made more sense than] racing him like it was going to be a battle to the death. There wasn't any point in doing that."
Stewart finished one spot behind Jimmie Johnson that day and lost five points of his lead. That still left him with a 38-point cushion, though. And guess how points racing played out today?
Johnson left Phoenix trailing by 52 points. This, after finishing a very respectable seventh.
Bottom line: Winning is nice. Top-five finishes are enough to win championships, though.
"A lot of times it's just easier to let one spot go if you have to -- and either wait for the next pit stop or realize that's just all we have that day," he said.
The sentiment showcases Stewart's maturity in his seventh Cup season. Although many have made a fuss over how controlled and subdued Stewart has been off the track, where he's run into trouble in the past, the true difference in Stewart-of-old and Stewart-now-on-the-brink-of-title No. 2 is his evolution on the racetrack.
"He's definitely mellowed a bit in just knowing that you've just got to go out there and give it everything you can," said four-time champ and friend Jeff Gordon. "You can't pay too much attention to outside critics too much. He's always been a tough competitor on the racetrack."
Gordon predicts that with just one event to go, Stewart is going to be every bit as tough as ever.
"[I think] that the second time you're going for a championship -- after you've won one -- it's always sweeter because you don't feel as much pressure," he said. "You feel more relaxed. You feel like you have a better idea of what to expect."
So far, Stewart has met every expectation. He's got a fair number of wins, but he's gotten safe and solid finishes when those wins were not within grasp.
Stewart's steady hand down the stretch is no secret to Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 Chevy knows he now needs Stewart to face mechanical problems or a wreck. Anything short of that and he's got his work cut out for him.
"It's go time," Johnson said. "There is no more relaxing. I hope I'm relaxing after the trophy has been raised in victory circle or whatever it is at that point in time at Homestead. But it's go time. That's all there is to it."
While Stewart has killed the competition with his patience, he's forced the rest of the field to run out of the virtue. Johnson has done his best, but he knows his back is against the wall. And it's not just about one race to make the most of 2005. For Johnson, it's about finally breaking through and capitalizing on a championship-caliber team.
"You don't know how long a team is going to stay in championship form and how everything is going to be," Johnson said. "It's so tough in our sport. I feel blessed. The worst I've been is fifth in the points, second the past two years. And we need to take advantage of this chance -- being as close to the championship. I know it, [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] knows it, the guys know it and we're set on it."
But for this season, they're all at the mercy of Stewart. A driver every bit capable of winning this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
More importantly, a driver who's a virtual lock to finish in the top 10.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.