Michael Jordan. Brett Favre. Tiger Woods. The world’s greatest athletes, in any sport share moments where they literally willed themselves to win.
Feel free to now add Tony Stewart’s name to that list. And he knows it.
“I would have to say that under the circumstances,” reflected the newly-crowned Sprint Cup champion, minutes after taking the checkered at Homestead, “I’ve got to believe that this is definitely one of the greatest races of my life.”
No doubt. Smoke’s third title, cementing his status as one of NASCAR’s all-time greats was won not by sitting out front but fighting, repeatedly, to get there. 118 times, over the course of just 267 laps Stewart had to pass a car to work his way to Victory Lane. Putting that in perspective, his rival for the title Carl Edwards passed just 53. That’s because the No. 99 was leading, most of the time for a race-high 119 circuits, sitting pretty while Stewart was getting down and dirty further back just to survive.
Scratching and clawing, simply to stay alive was Stewart’s best option after spending the first half of the race magnetically attracting adversity. There was a hole in the grill, sending him spiraling to 40th, lugnut lapses, and the hopeless track position that seemed destined to become an Achilles’ Heel. For a title race that was supposed to be edge-of-your seat, nail-biting excitement there appeared to be only one man out of millions watching needing to hold their breath.
“The storylines are total opposites,” said Stewart when asked to reflect on the day’s movie-like theme. “You have the guy that’s got the perfect race going, he’s leading laps and when he’s not leading, he’s second or third, and he is right where he wants to be. You have the other guy that’s like, man, can we get there from here? You feel like you have the big fish on the hook and you’re running out of line and wondering if you’re going to run out soon.”
Denny Hamlin, when faced with a similar situation just last year let that fish get away. In position to topple Jimmie Johnson, the pressure led to a spin, 25 laps in from which the driver of the No. 11 Toyota never had the confidence to recover.
But Hamlin, to this point in his career can only be labeled “good.” Stewart, during four hours’ worth of constant adversity proved himself as one of the all-time greats. Stop and think for a minute; how many drivers, in your lifetime have you seen run that would have been able to climb from outside the top 30, twice, with their rival leading, _then_ come all the way up and pass him and _hold on,_ with that driver in second over the final 30-something laps of the race?
Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt comes to mind, four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt… and that’s about it. Tragically, one man isn’t alive to give his opinion on what transpired Sunday. The other? He was so excited after watching this unprecedented comeback, the man had to call up and let Stewart know himself – just moments after the No. 14 clinched first place, the checkered flag and a third Cup title.
“To hear him say that was the best race he’s ever seen me run, brings a tear to your eye,” said Stewart, who not only calls Foyt a role model for his racing but a close friend. “My life is complete. Not many people can have their lifelong hero say that and hear you say that.”
“It’s just very, very flattering. For once, he didn’t tell me I did anything wrong.”
That’s because Stewart really did do everything right. During the race’s red flag for rain, buried back in the field it was Stewart, not Edwards talking trash on the sidelines. Cocky as ever, would even Jimmie Johnson have the guts to walk by rival car owner, Jack Roush and say, “Tell your boy to get on the wheel because I’m on my way and I’m coming” when you’re half-a-field behind the No. 99?
Clearly, Stewart mouthed off, a running theme of pushing forward while pushing the mental game to the limit for Edwards. Most importantly, though, his actions down the stretch spoke louder than words with the right reactions to keep the team intact. As the laps wound down, crew chief Darian Grubb asking Stewart to save fuel for a crucial final green-flag stop it was the owner/driver backing off, letting his mechanics make the decisions. And when aggressive driving was needed, both early and late in the race it was Stewart unafraid, ready to mix it up with the experience of understanding what’s at stake.
“Tony, never giving up,” said the head wrench. “What he’s done driving a race car has been extremely impressive to me. He’s been the one to go three and four-wide and everyone else is just scared and lifts. I think he went out and earned this championship.”
Stewart’s management skills, off the track have been just as impressive, no matter how much you link the owner/driver’s team to Hendrick Motorsports. Competition Director Bobby Hutchens, an integral part of this organization’s growth was axed in June. Grubb himself, under fire at times in the crew chief position was told his role would change in 2012 _halfway through the Chase._ Yes; in the midst of the most competitive championship battle in NASCAR history, Stewart gave the man responsible for setting up his car a future pink slip.
Yet the duo focused, persevered, and set records. “Half,” for 2011 will forever be the number of races Smoke and Grubb won through the Chase. No driver, in the eight-year history of the playoff format has won five out of the last ten; before Stewart, the last driver to do so was Rusty Wallace back in 1993. And he needed every single one of those wins, too; Carl Edwards had a 4.9 average finish during these playoffs, the equivalent to a top-5 finish every single race but with that kind of winning percentage… it wasn’t enough.
There will be so much talk this week about how Edwards could have done more: getting aggressive at Talladega, negating the pit road penalty at Dover that could have cost him a win. But what about the way in which Stewart maximized every opportunity? From the gas mileage victories, at Chicagoland and New Hampshire to a late pass of Jeff Burton at Phoenix last week, driver and crew took chances and were consistently rewarded for their efforts. That push by the No. 31, for one extra position proved the difference just as much as Edwards playing it safe at ‘Dega.
“Nobody has ever quit on this team,” echoed the statements of Stewart, Grubb, and team co-owner Gene Haas. A third title becomes the result, meaning just four men have _ever_ won more championship hardware than Stewart: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Clearly, the resolve within the No. 14 team, going winless during the regular season and put on the precipice of missing the Chase was top notch. But Stewart’s leadership, on Sunday and amidst all the adversity stands out here. To win this time, there could be no mood swings, no ill-defined mannerisms that defined title runs for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2002 and ’05. At 40, Smoke simply spent these playoffs on autopilot, emotionally in check – apart from the jokes – while doubling as a driver who acted on-track as if he had nothing to lose.
“It was fun,” Stewart said of his 2011 Cup season. “I had fun racing this year.”
That’s what all the greats say, regardless of how the final result turns out; their passion for the sport they’ve always loved trumps all. Funny thing is, with that smile on their face they’re usually sitting next to the hardware more than others.