Tony Stewart didn’t have to do any more during his time in NASCAR. He had already won two Cup Series championships(2002 & 2005) along with 43 victories in NASCAR’s top division heading into Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But, being the type of man that Stewart is, he’s never satisfied with what he has. That ‘always wanting more’ attitude is what propelled the one known as ‘Smoke’ to his third Sprint Cup title.
After struggling just to compete in the top level of the sport, longtime co-owner of Hass CNC Racing, Gene Hass, made a move that would forever change the face of his team. When rumors came about the possible ‘free agency’ of Stewart early on in the 2008 season, many people pointed to ownership for the already championship winning sprint car owner. In July at Chicagoland Speedway, Stewart and Haas made the announcement that they would join forces to form what is now known as Stewart-Haas Racing.
Stewart, who had won both of his previous two titles with Joe Gibbs Racing, was finally able to accomplish what he set off to do when he left for his Stewart-Haas Racing team for the 2009 season; To win a championship.
“I really appreciate the opportunity that Gene(Haas) and Joe Custer have given us, and I appreciate what Darian has done from day one,” said Stewart in his post-race press conference. “We got a bunch of racers on our team and I’m proud of that. I think that’s what makes great teams great is people don’t just sit there and look at their job as a 9 to 5 job or whatever their hours are and they show up and leave whenever that hour gets there.”
Smoke won Sunday’s Ford 400, beating championship rival Carl Edwards by virtue of a tie-breaker after he and Stewart tied season ending points. It was the first time that the championship in NASCAR’s top level had ever come down to a tie-breaker in the 60-plus year history of the sport.
“Well, you know, I’ve been doing it for ten years,” said co-owner Haas. “ It’s hard. I think when you enter it, you have these expectations that you can run with the big dogs and that’s a lot harder to do than you think. But like any organization, you really do have to pay your dues. You have to spend your time.”
“His(Stewart’s) words were, I don’t know why you want to get in this sport, but if you want to be in this sport, I tell you what, I’m going to help you lose as little money as possible. That was his words of wisdom. So he partnered up with us and we went forward from there.”
Coming into the Chase ‘red hot’ Smoke was playing the minds games with Edwards all week, not to mention throughout the entire Chase. But, Smoke’s chances for the title seemed to take a major blow on not one, but two occasions during the championship deciding race.
When Kurt Busch broke a drive shaft early on, pieces from it began to fall onto the speedway, with some going through the grille of Stewart’s Chevrolet. Coming to pit road, Stewart’s crew was ready to go, already having a spare part for the punctured grille opening, it allowed Smoke to get back out on the track and continue is race for the championship.
Before the final green flag stop of the night, fuel mileage was in the question for the No. 14 of Stewart. Saving fuel, trying to guarantee making it on fuel to the end of the race, crew chief Darian Grubb left Stewart on the race track, trying to ‘milk’ all he could out of the fuel tank.
And as destiny would have it, Stewart was able to make it to pit road, and go on to win.
“It was just a true team effort all night to be able to fight our way back up through there,”said Grubb. “Seeing him every day on the racetrack, that’s what I get to deal with on the radio, too. That’s the true Tony everybody knows and loves and we all know he can go out there and be a champion and he did that for the third time tonight.”
After his 2005 championship, Stewart made it very well known that he was so happy that he got Greg Zipadelli(former crew chief) a championship in ‘the right way’. While Stewart was calm and joking around throughout the weekend in Homestead, he said one very simple message on the radio that sums up what he wanted to do.
“I want to win one for Gene(Haas), I want to win one for you(Grubb) and hell, I might be greedy here but I want a third one.”
Becoming the first owner/driver to win a Sprint Cup championship since the late, Alan Kulwicki performed the feat in 1992, Stewart not only solidified himself as a lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but he also helped fulfill the lifetime dreams of not only Grubb and Haas, but for everyone associated with the Stewart-Haas Racing team.
“Two cars in the Top-10 in the Sprint Cup Series, I’m pretty proud of that. Probably as close to being a father as I’m going to get for a while, and I’m pretty proud of all my kids, even though one is 50 years old and still winning races,” said Stewart. “ I’m proud of our people. I feel like I’ve said it from day one, I’ve been a part of this organization.”
There is no better way to win a championship in racing than needing to, and winning the last race of the season to clinch. Trust me, I know first hand. But, it’s just not all that for Stewart. Sure, he wanted nothing more to win, that’s just ‘how he rolls’. But, giving all the men and women that work year-round for the team their first championship, has to make this championship the best for Stewart of his championships he has earned not just in NASCAR, but all walks of racing.