Stewart no longer sweats the small stuff

Updated: November 19, 2005, 7:54 PM ET
Associated Press

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- On the verge of racing into NASCAR history, temperamental Tony Stewart spent Saturday morning searching for a little serenity. He went fishing.

Under a brilliant sun on a calm lake inside Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart was seemingly at peace. Unlike his tortured run to the title in 2002, his second march has been smooth with few distractions.

Needing to finish ninth or better or Sunday to clinch the Nextel Cup title, Stewart can use the season finale to cement his name among NASCAR's elite. Only 13 drivers have won more than one championship, with Jeff Gordon the only one among active drivers.

"I think he already ranks right up there with the big boys," said A.J. Foyt, Stewart's boyhood idol and no slouch himself with four Indianapolis 500 victories and a Daytona 500 win. "He's got a lot of winning left in him. There aren't a lot of drivers like Tony Stewart anymore."

A winner at every level of racing he's entered, NASCAR was no different for Stewart when he made the leap into stock cars in 1999 following a championship stint in the IndyCar Series.

But the time demands, sponsor commitments and constant scrutiny were difficult for Stewart, a driver who relaxed in a race car and seemed on edge -- sometimes even angry -- everywhere else.

He soon became known as an extraordinary talent with a history of derailing his own success. He was his own worst enemy, especially during his 2002 championship season.

NASCAR's bad boy was on probation for punching a photographer, was ordered to attend anger management classes and was generally just miserable. In the buildup to the season finale, he was dogged with questions about what kind of champion he would be and if his temper would embarrass NASCAR during his reign as the series ambassador.

Three years later, Stewart has finally figured out how to cap his short fuse.

There have been few outbursts and fewer tantrums. When baited, he was able to summon the strength to walk away.

"You know what? He's 34 years old now," said his mother, Pam Boas. "It was time to grow up."

Stewart is far from NASCAR's new golden boy, but his dealings with the sport's leadership have been far more pleasant these days.

"I've really noticed a difference in him," said chairman Brian France. "He's different when I talk to him now. He's more approachable. He's got a smile on his face. He doesn't make comments anymore that you don't understand. He takes things in stride more.

"Whatever he is doing looks like it is helping on the track, too, because he is dealing with adversity and managing it better than he ever has."

Should Stewart win the championship on Sunday, it would be his second in four seasons -- and his third major title since 1997's IndyCar crown.

But this championship is no gimme, although it is his to lose.

He leads Jimmie Johnson by 52 points, with Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle not far behind. Edwards won the pole, Biffle -- the defending race winner -- qualified seventh. Stewart will start 20th and Johnson was 32nd.

Still, all the contenders have accepted that it will take a colossal collapse by Stewart and his team -- which has been nearly flawless during the entire Chase for the championship -- for anyone but Stewart to win.

"I think it will be a travesty if Tony doesn't win a championship," rival car owner Jack Roush conceded. "I hope that he does."

So does Stewart, who doesn't want this second title so much for himself, rather as a gift to the team that stuck with him through his darkest days.

"It would mean everything to me, that's why I want to win it so bad this year," Stewart said. "2002 was probably one of the worst personal years of my life, even though it was one of the most gratifying professional years of my life as far as winning a championship.

"It will mean 10 times more if we can do it this year with the way the year has been. I think the entire team will enjoy it more," he added.

Stewart will have to keep his composure through one more weekend. He succeeded on Friday when he lost control of the No. 20 Chevrolet during practice, keeping it off the wall through two full spins.

But his old buddy Foyt isn't fully sold on the new and improved Stewart, saying a driver of Stewart's caliber needs to keep an edge about him to remain successful over the long haul.

"If he starts getting too calm, he won't keep winning," Foyt said. "If he starts getting really mild and too calm, he'll go backwards. He'll always have to be halfway ornery and not real nice if he's going to make it as one of the greatest ever."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press