Stewart kept cool, eye on big prize

by Pete McCole

November 21, 2005

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Tony Stewart’s task Sunday was simple – keep your cool, stay out of trouble, and the title was all but wrapped up.

After following that same mantra for 35 races, what was one more?

Stewart, a calmer, cooler, and more collected driver now more than he’s ever been, finished 15th in Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to prevail in the 2005 edition of the Chase For The Nextel Cup and collect his second title in three years, beating out race winner Greg Biffle by 35 points.

First-year phenom Carl Edwards finished fourth, ending up tied with Biffle for second in the title chase. Biffle’s six victories to Edwards’ four gave Biffle the tie-breaker in the runner-up for the title.

Stewart’s championship was the third for team owner Joe Gibbs, following teammate Bobby Labonte’s title in 2000.

"I'm just excited," said Stewart. "I'm so happy that I could get Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) this championship and do it the right way for him. I put this team through hell in 2002, but they've never given up on me. It was nice to finally do one right and do it right for Zippy."

If this championship seems different for Stewart, it should. Missing from this title run were the controversy, the blowups and the double probations that marred his chase for the 2002 crown.

This year, Stewart seemed more mature, almost poised at times, seemingly unfazed by it all.

“Nobody is ever going to accuse me of being smarter (than in 2002). And I'm not going to say I'm a better driver,” said Stewart. “I think that we're just a better team. Our organization has grown and grown stronger. You know, I feel I'm just a piece of the puzzle. I feel we all complement each other well.

The greatest strength of Joe Gibbs has been assembling the right people to do the right jobs. I'm just a piece of the puzzle. I'm not the guy that won us this championship - this race team won us this championship.”

It was a season where Stewart finally realized his dreams of winning at NASCAR’s most storied track – Daytona Int’l Speedway – and Stewart’s own hometown circuit – Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In all, Stewart tallied five wins and 16 top-five finishes, and led the points standings for 13 of the final 14 events

With the title in hand, Stewart becomes the 14th driver in NASCAR history to win more than one Cup Series championship, but only the second active driver to do so, joining four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.

Stewart’s emotional victory at Indy gave him the points lead for the first time in 2005, a lead he would hold until the first race in the Chase for the Nextel Cup at New Hampshire.

An 18th-place showing at Dover the following week knocked him back to fifth in the standings, but one week later he was atop the standings once again after taking the runner-up spot at Talladega.

It was a lead he would never relinquish.

Stewart led by as much as 75 points during the final 10 races, although he and Johnson were tied following the tire-shredding 500-miler at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in October.

Johnson had shadowed Stewart in the Chase for the final five races, but in the end was never a factor in Sunday’s finale.

On lap 127, Johnson blew a right-rear tire, sending his no. 48 Lowe’s Chevy hard into the outside wall and with it any chance of winning his first title.

“The first reaction (to Johnson’s crash) was that I wanted to make sure he is alright and I felt bad,” said Stewart. “You hate for it to come down to the last race like that and have something happen and get in an accident and not be able to race for the championship. I wouldn't want any driver to have to go through that.

That left Edwards as Stewart's main competitor, along with Edwards' Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle. Edwards had to win the race, lead the most laps and hope Stewart finished 21st or worse to claim the championship, while Biffle needed even more help to earn the crown.

Despite their best efforts, neither driver could overtake Stewart in the standings

"It wasn't pretty, but we got the job done tonight," said Stewart. "We were way too tight. We would start off a little on the free side, but we could never get the balance quite right. We kept sneaking up on it, but we knew we were better off being a little too tight than a little too free, so we just made small changes. We could have done more to be more aggressive with it, but we did what we needed to do.

“We just kept our mind on the big prize. We knew we didn't have a car good enough to win tonight, so we just did what we had to do to win the championship."

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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