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.”
• 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.