Champions are different than those who are merely very good at their respective sports. When the game is on the line, championship athletes want to take the last shot, want to lead the 2-minute drill, want to come to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and swing for the fences. It's what they dreamed of as children, what they trained for as teenagers and what they crave in the moment.
And that's why Tony Stewart is now a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. After a mediocre run during NASCAR's 26-race regular season, when he had no victories and just three top-five finishes, Stewart suddenly and unexpectedly went on a white-hot streak during the season-ending, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. In the Chase, Stewart won five races, including three of the final four to tie Carl Edwards in points and take the championship via the tiebreaker for most race victories.
Stewart's accomplishment came with no competition director on the team and a lame-duck crew chief in Darian Grubb, who was told midway through the Chase that he would be gone after the season ended. It was the kind of story you couldn't make up, much like Alan Kulwicki winning the 1992 Cup championship by leading one more lap than Bill Elliott in the season-ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
So how did Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing team go from also-rans in the regular season to champions? Here's the blueprint to a championship:
• CARS Throughout the regular season, Stewart complained that he couldn't get the feel in his cars that he liked, a problem that ultimately led him to drop Grubb in favor of Steve Addington, who Stewart worked with when both were at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“The real question is, what was going on in the first 26 races?” says four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon of the Stewart/Grubb combo. “Why weren't they able to connect and make it happen then? That changed once the Chase started. You've got to believe they either were working on some things and they just all of a sudden came together and they clicked, or they found a little something special, or a combination of Tony wins the first Chase race and gets highly motivated.”
Clearly, Grubb found something to get the cars more to Stewart's liking, most likely, suspension adjustments to help the car turn in the center of the corner.
Stewart, not surprisingly, is mum on the specifics: “I might want to use it again,” he explains.
• MOTIVATION Prior to the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Stewart publicly opined that he didn't deserve a spot in the playoff field. Whether by design or happenstance, that galvanized the team behind him.
“When I said at Chicago that we didn't belong in this Chase, there were two things that could have happened with our group of guys,” says Stewart. “They could have hung their heads and said, ‘Our guy doesn't believe in us,' or they could do exactly what they did, and that's never give up. They dug their heels in and fought like the Bad News Bears.”
“We didn't really dig in any harder but it just turned the attitude around,” counters Grubb. “It was like, ‘There's no reason for us to have this sour attitude; let's just keep doing what we know we can do and get fast racecars on the racetrack under Tony and get better.' And that's what we did.”