• LEADERSHIP One of Stewart's strengths is the team he has built around himself: Rick Hendrick, who provides engines and chassis for SHR and is Stewart's unofficial consigliere; co-owner Gene Haas; Executive Vice President Brett Frood; and Eddie Jarvis, the team's senior vice president. Stewart's inner circle takes care of business so he can race with a clear head on Sundays and they played vital roles in making the team a champion in only its third year of existence.
“I thought Tony was a little crazy for doing it, but Tony is a little bit smarter than you think sometimes,” says Haas, who managed just one top-five finish in 284 Cup starts as owner of Haas CNC Racing, the team that became Stewart Haas Racing when Stewart was brought in prior to the 2009 season. “He obviously saw some potential in what we did. He has a lot of great relationships.”
Adds Stewart: “Gene gave me the faith and the trust to go get the people I felt like we needed and Rick Hendrick did that too. He was the one who would say, ‘Hey, this is the guy who I think is going to be a good fit for you.' That's the push in the right direction that you need to give you that confidence.”
• MARTINSVILLE Although Stewart won the first two Chase races, he was still in fourth place in points heading into Martinsville Speedway, a track where his average finish in the previous three races was 28th and where he'd led only one lap in the prior eight events.
Stewart was nearly lapped by Denny Hamlin, but caught a caution flag at the right time to stay in contention. With three laps to go, Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson on a restart from the outside lane – something that's supposed to be impossible at that track – to take his third victory of the Chase and give himself and the team a huge shot of confidence.
“That was the turning point for us,” agrees Stewart. “We struggled at the previous three Martinsville races, so to battle to stay on the lead lap and, once we stayed there, to fight back to the lead and to win the race with the drama we did…Well, I've yet to have anybody tell me who has passed for the lead on the outside to win the race at Martinsville.”
• TEXAS Carl Edwards came to Texas expecting to win, expecting to stretch his points lead and solidify his grip on the championship. Instead, Stewart won while Edwards had to settle for second at one of Roush Fenway Racing's best tracks. “It's a lesson to me,” says Edwards. “You can't ever quit. You've got to get every single point you can.”
“After Texas, we thought, ‘We have as good a shot as anybody,'” recalls Stewart.
• HOMESTEAD FINALE After damaging his front air dam early on, Stewart charged back from 40th after one pit stop and 38th after another. He survived a lug nut getting caught in an air gun during a bad pit stop, and Grubb made the ballsiest pit call of the year, keeping Stewart on track when rain was approaching.
Stewart also had one huge advantage on his side that hasn't been reported: The other 41 drivers on the track let Stewart and Edwards decide the title between them. Had Homestead been, say, the third race of the season, there's no way Stewart could have come through the field as aggressively as he did, as often as he did.
“Everybody wants to finish strong and wants to win the race, but they know there's a season's worth of work coming down to one day, so they're more aware,” says Stewart. “They give you more room than they would early in the year. Especially when you've got cars like Carl and I had. When they see you coming, and they know you have fast cars, they're not going to hold you up. They're not going to do anything to get in your way and put you in a compromising position.”
“I think everybody did a good job of racing us hard but not too hard,” agrees Edwards.
• WILLPOWER At the end of the day, Stewart had plenty of experience in championship battles, back through his USAC days, the old-IRL IndyCar Series and two prior NASCAR titles. Like all great champions, he is best in the biggest moments and, as his confidence grew, there's no question he found an extra gear in his own mind.
“When he gets highly motivated, Tony is one of the most talented drivers – if not the most talented driver – I've ever raced against,” says Gordon.
Interestingly, though, for all his swagger and goading of Edwards during the Chase, Stewart is surprisingly low-key about his ability to turn it on at title time.
“I wish I could say it was me,” Stewart says. “Those streaks come from the team and the cars that we're driving. I feel like I drive the same every week, it's just a matter of whether I can get the job accomplished with what we've got. I think the reason we get on streaks is that you find something you hit on and it carries over and will work for a while until people get caught up or you try to find the next best thing.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick thinks willpower played a key role in Stewart's championship. “You've got to give it to Tony, Darian, Gene Haas and that whole organization. They turned it on there at the end, and they just weren't going to be denied.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.