Clean, steady run gives Stewart second title


HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Tony Stewart was smooth and steady for an
entire race. An entire season. An entire championship run.

Stewart cruised to his second NASCAR championship in four years Sunday, capping an uncharacteristically calm season for the former
Bad Boy. He won races, kept his temper in check and avoided every
major incident long enough to cement himself as one of the greatest
drivers of his time.

Needing only to run a clean race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he
hovered just outside the top 10 and away from any potential danger.
He ended up 15th, winning the title by 35 points over Greg Biffle,
who won the race for the second straight year by besting teammate
Mark Martin in a door-to-door finish.

Stewart became just the 14th driver in NASCAR history with more
than one championship and joined four-time winner Jeff Gordon as the only active drivers with multiple titles.

"Once you win more than one, it definitely puts you into an
elite group and you are going to be looked upon different," Gordon
said. "You win one, you are looked at differently. Win two and it
takes you to another level."

Gordon, who failed to qualify for the Chase for the
championship, rallied over the final 10 races and finished the year
11th in points. That was good for a $1 million prize and a trip to
the series banquet in New York.

For Stewart, it was the perfect finale to what's been a perfect
season both on and off the track.

He had a tortured run to the title in 2002, punching a
photographer the lowest point of a rollercoaster season pocked by
bad behavior and blowups. So he'll treasure this title, a gift to
the team that stuck with him through thick and thin.

After an emotional embrace with crew chief Greg Zipadelli --
interrupted by chants of "Climb the fence!" from his fans -- he
dedicated the win to his Joe Gibbs Racing crew members, who
showered him in Coke from the risers above.

"I put the team through a lot of hell ever since I've been with
them but they never gave up on me," Stewart said. "Zippy didn't
want to win it the way we did in 2002. It was nice to do it and do
it right."

The championship was the third for Gibbs, now coach of the
Washington Redskins, and first for his son, J.D., who took over the
leadership role when his father went to the NFL.

"Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate," Joe Gibbs said over a
telephone line while Stewart accepted the Nextel Cup trophy, "and
I'm picking up the tab!"

"You're darn right you're picking up the tab!" replied
Stewart, who won at least $5.8 million with the title.

Indeed, Gibbs was instrumental in getting Stewart to finally
settle down.

One day during the offseason, he ordered the driver into the
race shop for a heart-to-heart talk with his team. He wanted the
crew to open their hearts and make Stewart see just how difficult
he made their jobs.

When the meeting was over, Stewart was a changed man.

He moved back to Indiana into his childhood home, surrounding
himself with family and old friends who had a calming effect on his
frequent mood swings. It showed in his personality and in his
performance, especially during the summer when he turned it up a
notch to become the hottest driver in NASCAR.

Reeling off a string of five victories in seven races, nothing
could beat Stewart, not even his old nemesis -- Indianapolis Motor
Speedway. The track had tormented him his entire career, denying
him time after time in both stock and Indy cars.

But not even Indy could derail Stewart this season. He finally
scored a win at the Brickyard in August.

"To win at home in the Brickyard was a race of a lifetime," he

For the first time all season it pushed Stewart into the points
lead, where he would stay for 13 of the final 14 weeks. He was on
top at the start of the 10-race Chase for the championship and fell
off the leaderboard just once, when he dropped to fifth after Round

Stewart raced his way back on top a week later and never looked
back, notching six top-10 finishes during the Chase. By the time he
got to Sunday's finale, he needed only to finish ninth or better to
clinch the title.

Only Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Biffle had a chance to
beat him, and Johnson saw his hopes squashed 126 laps into the race
when an apparent leak in his right rear tire finally gave out. The
tire exploded and sent him smashing into the wall.

A two-time runner up for the title the past two seasons, Johnson
desperately wanted to avoid falling short yet again. But as the
cars raced around him as he stood dejected in the garage, Johnson
would have traded anything to be back out there with a shot at
second. Instead, he dropped all the way back to fifth in a
frustrating end to his season.

"I look back at the season and we did everything we could," he
said. "So I'm disappointed. I lived my whole life for this
I'll be back next year."

With Johnson out, Stewart only needed to keep an eye on Edwards
and Biffle. It wasn't difficult -- both of them were running at the
front of the pack, far ahead of Stewart.

But as long as he didn't make a colossal mistake, the title was
his to lose. So he watched as the Roush Racing teammates battled
for the win, focusing only on keeping his Chevrolet off the wall
and on the lead lap.

He succeeded, and some 45 minutes after crossing the finish
line, he was cleared to climb the fence for one final celebration.