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Ride of his life

Tony Stewart survives many low points this season to capture his first title on NASCAR's grandest stage.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 18, 2002

HOMESTEAD -- When the world closes is on Tony Stewart, there is at least one place he can go to escape the vexing demands of being a famous NASCAR driver.

His race car.

His sanctuary.

Gripping the wheel makes everything right -- makes the hassles and commitments easier to take, makes the bad times a 190 mph blur. Driving a race car is all Stewart ever wanted to do, and, during the course of a controversial season, no one did it better.

Stewart, volatile driver of the No.20 Pontiac, won the Winston Cup championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, holding off a late-season charge by veteran Mark Martin to claim his first series title in his fourth season.

"To go through all the things we went through this year and still keep our focus -- I still have a hard time believing we've accomplished what we accomplished," said Stewart, who finished 18th in the Ford 400 to beat fourth-place Martin by 38 points.

"We didn't do anything magical, anything special. It was more of a personal victory with our team. ... You don't realize what went into winning this championship and how hard it was."

Stewart, 31, gets $3.75-million from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds for winning. He joins past NASCAR champions such as Richard Petty, the late Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip. But Stewart breaks the mold.

Short-tempered and contentious, Stewart is the first champion to finish the season on probation, the result of his striking a photographer after the Brickyard 400 in August at Indianapolis. He is opinionated, impatient and testy. But Stewart's controversial side is offset by a sensitivity that makes him one of racing's most intriguing personalities.

Sitting in his car after the race, mopping his face with a towel and adjusting a cap bearing the championship logo, Stewart took a minute to reflect on the members of opposing teams who lingered on pit road to congratulate him.

"I don't care what check Winston writes or how many trophies they give me, the feeling and satisfaction of seeing those guys out there is more than money can buy," Stewart said. "You couldn't put a price tag on having that many people feel happy for you and want to congratulate you on your year. That is probably what I'm going to remember most."

Opinions of Stewart inside the tight ranks of the Winston Cup garage differ from those outside. His peers respect his talent and, behind closed doors, delight in his disdain for the corporate posturing that seems to have robbed NASCAR of its good-old-days spice.

"I admire Tony Stewart," said Martin, 43, a championship runner-up for the fourth time in his career. "I'm a commercialized racer. You have to be in this business, and I've done my very best to represent the sport the best way I can.

"But deep down, I'm like Tony. I'd rather be on the road right now headed toward the dirt track. ... He's a racer's racer. He's intense. Whoever wins the Winston Cup championship carries a big load, and it will be interesting to watch."

Stewart loves to race -- any car, any track, any time. The Indiana native has nine titles in various forms of racing, from go-karts to USAC's midget, sprint and silver crown divisions, the Indy Racing League and, now, NASCAR's premier stock car series.

The title is the second for Joe Gibbs Racing, which won with Bobby Labonte in 2000.

Stewart hoped to contend for the win Sunday but did not. Kurt Busch claimed his fourth victory, third in five races, as Stewart fought an ill-handling car.

This was a team that overcame a last-place finish at the Daytona 500, Stewart's outburst at the Brickyard, accusations that he assaulted people at three other tracks, six DNFs and the pressure of leading the standings the final seven weeks.

What was one more obstacle?

Needing to finish at least 22nd to clinch, Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli remained calm, even as Stewart was lapped by the leader on Lap 192 of 267. Gradually, they made the car better. A speedy, yellow-flag pit stop helped Stewart get back on the lead lap. Just as it had the entire season, the team never gave up.

Neither did Stewart.

The reward was overwhelming.

"I made my father a promise when I was 8 years old, and to the day I die I intend to live by it," Stewart said. "I told him that the day I don't enjoy what I'm doing, then I'd quit doing it. If there comes a day that I truly don't enjoy it, then I'll quit.

"A lot of stuff happened to us this year. I can't imagine any year coming up being worse than this year. I'm hoping and praying that I got the worst of it behind us."

And he can just drive.

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