Stewart Oozes Hoosier Pride After Successful Championship Run
Monday, November 21, 2011
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When Tony Stewart was growing up in Columbus, Ind., he wanted to be the next A.J. Foyt. Most grassroots racers from the state of Indiana marveled at Foyt’s accomplishments as the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 as well as his incredible record of 67 IndyCar wins, along with the 1972 Daytona 500 and the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans.
If it had four wheels and a steering wheel, Foyt could drive it to victory lane.
Those are the same qualities Stewart has displayed throughout his spectacular racing career, which includes victories in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005 and 2007 and the 1996-97 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.
And after winning his third NASCAR Sprint Cup title in epic fashion by defeating points leader Carl Edwards in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart is now the driver that grassroots racers want to emulate.
“They should set their standards much higher than that,” Stewart joked.
But one thing that is no joke to Stewart is how his Indiana roots have prepared him for his historic stature in auto racing. And by bringing the Sprint Cup back to Indiana for the third time in his career, it’s cause for celebration from South Bend and Fort Wayne to the North, to Evansville and Madison to the South and back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the middle of the state.
“I'm proud of where I came from,” Stewart said. “My career path made a pretty drastic turn, and I don't know how many people actually know. I had a chance to drive for A.J. when the IRL started, and I had been working on a deal with Harry (Rainier) to join the Busch Series at the time and was really close to having that done, and my intention was to do that, and then all of a sudden the opportunity came to drive for A.J. and the IRL, and the IRL only had five races.
“So I had every intention of doing both. I was used to running Silver Crown car, midgets, all in the same night, and I couldn't see why I couldn't run five IndyCar races and the schedule. A.J. kind of put the kibosh to that. He wanted me to be an IndyCar driver or NASCAR driver, and that was a pretty hard decision to make; to tell your hero that you are going to turn down an opportunity to drive his race car to go do something else.
“But I had worked with the Rainier family long enough, I didn't want to let them down, and I didn't necessarily want to turn down that opportunity -- didn't have to worry about what was going to happen. From where I grew up, I take a lot of pride in the fact that we are going to be bringing a trophy back home.”
Just a few hours after winning his third Sprint Cup title in dramatic fashion, Stewart had a sense of how it was being celebrated back home in Columbus.
“I already know that Bob Franke at the Dairy Queen has already been giving away ice cream tonight, and he will tell me to the penny exactly how much he lost doing it, literally to the cent, he will tell me how much money it cost him,” Stewart said. “I live in a town with 35,000 people, and I've still got the same friends that I had growing up.
"You know, when I go home, people let me just be me. They see me in a restaurant; they will come by and say hi. I've been back home long enough now, I think the news wore off, and I'm just another person. It's a sense of pride that when the people in your community come up and say they are proud of you and you did a good job, that means a lot. I'm excited about the day I get to go home now.”
Stewart’s Chevrolet carries the car number 14 of his hero, A.J. Foyt.
“For those of you who don't know, when we were doing one of the ESPN interviews, they had a surprise phone call for us on the line, and it was A.J. Foyt,” Stewart said. “And to hear him say that that was the best race he's ever seen me run, brings a tear to your eye. I mean, not many people can have their lifelong hero say that and hear you say that.
“It's just very, very flattering. The one thing out of the conversation I was surprised, even when I drove Silver Crown cars for him and George Snider, I would still win the race and he would tell me everything I did wrong during the race. For once, he didn't tell me I did anything wrong. I'm like; I don't know how I'm going to top this now. My life is complete. If I get hit on a golf cart now, I'm good to go because A.J. said I did everything perfect for once.
“It was an honor. That was probably one of the coolest phone calls I've ever had in my life.”
Foyt was proud of his protégé’s accomplishment.
“It was a great race," Foyt said. "I was a little worried in the beginning because it seemed like something happened to Tony every time he got in the front. He had to win it to win the championship, and I think Tony drove the best race of his life. It was great to see the 14 win again. I’m real proud of him.”
NASCAR finally got the Chase it has always wanted – a championship decided by a driver winning the final race of the season. Tony Stewart delivered by scoring his fifth victory in the 10 races in the Chase by defeating points leader Carl Edwards by 1.306 seconds in Sunday night’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The victory gave Stewart his third NASCAR Cup title.
Even by winning the race, Stewart and Edwards finished in a points tie. Stewart won his third Sprint Cup title based on tie-breaker – five wins to Edwards’ one. The five wins in the Chase is a NASCAR record since this 10-race format was implemented in 2004.
Stewart had to overcome early-race adversity when debris knocked a huge hole in the front grille of his Chevrolet, which sent him to the back of the field while repairs were made to the damage. After that was fixed, he ran into the back of David Reutimann’s Toyota, causing more damage to his race car, which once again sent it to the back of the field.
Stewart was so confident that he could overcome the adversity that he radioed to his crew, “This is going to make it that much more satisfying when we come back and kick his (Edwards) ass.”
Stewart passed 118 cars in Sunday’s race, including some daring moves going three-wide and even four-wide in his spectacular drive through the field.
“Man, I feel like I passed half the State of Florida -- 118 cars is a lot of cars to pass in one race,” Stewart said. “I don't care what series you're in or where you're at. To do it under the circumstances and the pressure that we had today, I'm very, very proud of that, and man, I've been racing 31 years, I can't even remember some of the races I've won. But I would have to say that under the circumstances, I've got to believe that this is definitely one of the greatest races of my life.”
Stewart’s adds the 2011 Cup title to the Winston Cup title he won in 2002 under the old points system and the Sprint Cup championship in 2005. By winning his third title he is the ninth driver to win three or more championships. The other drivers with three are Darrell Waltrip, Lee Petty, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. Jeff Gordon has four championships and Jimmie Johnson five, with the late Dale Earnhardt and the legendary Richard Petty tied with seven championships apiece.
Edwards led six times for 119 laps – the most in the race. Stewart was in front four times for 65 laps, including the final 36.
But there was nothing Edwards could do to catch the champion’s Chevrolet, leaving Edwards dealing with the disappointment afterward.
“I think it's been a true test,” Edwards said of his historic championship showdown with Stewart. “It's been a battle. As best I can, right now, if I step back, away from this, and look at it, and I say, OK, here are two guys, one of which has a lot more experience in these situations than the other. He won half of the races in the Chase. And the other guy, I mean, stood his ground, did a darned good job of forcing these guys to perform their best.
“I'm proud of that. And I think that what you just said, the fact that it was that way that it just turned into this, you know, man-to-man battle, that was very interesting. That's something that you don't see in this sport. It shouldn't happen. It only, I believe, happened because subconsciously everybody on these teams just raised their level of performance.
“And to be honest with you, I was very, very impressed with Tony. I think that for all of the talk and all of the chest-pounding that he did, I could see that he was really -- I mean, he was nervous about this, too. I mean, they had to perform at a very high level, and I honestly thought that there was a good chance tonight of them making a mistake; of him over-driving, trying too hard, and they showed a lot of mental toughness to watch us go lead the first half of this race essentially and not panic, not make mistakes. I thought they did a really good job.”
It was undoubtedly one of the best – if not the best – championship finish in NASCAR history as NASCAR's grand dream finally came true.
And Stewart also has the unique honor of being the driver to “bookend” Jimmie Johnson’s historic record of five Sprint Cup championships in a row. Stewart won the Cup in 2005. Johnson began his streak of five in a row in 2006, and that streak was ended with Stewart’s title in 2011.
“I think the last five years, the entire NASCAR nation thought they might never have a shot at another championship again,” Stewart said. “I think the one thing that I was constantly reminded by in the media is we were the last guys to win one before Jimmie started that string. You look at Jeff and guys that have been successful in this series and had not won, and we had won a more recent one than those guys have; you can't discard it and say that you can't win it.
“It's just, what do you have to do to get back on top. You know, I don't think anybody ever has that feeling. The day that you just say, I can't do it any more, you might as well just announce your retirement and find some young kid that will do it.”
By winning his third Sprint Cup title in the manner that he did it – from a Babe Ruth “Called Shot” after winning at Martinsville on Oct. 30 and then saying he was coming after Edwards – to his incredible performances to close out the season, Stewart is now compared to the all-time best drivers that have ever competed in the sport, including Foyt.
“I have a hard time putting it in perspective what it means with these guys and the greats of these sports and the legends of this sport,” Stewart said. “You feel like you're comparing apples to oranges because you're comparing different eras in our sport. It's hard to put that in perspective, I think.
“I feel like I'm a part of a time in NASCAR when the competition's better than it's ever been. It's more competitive than it's ever been. And to be in a format that's very tight, very competitive, and you can't have anything go wrong to win five races out of a 10-race Chase. To win closest battle in NASCAR history, you know, no matter what the record books say at the end of the day and the greats that are a part of it, it's a huge honor just to be in those record books with those guys. I don't care how many races you win, how many championships you win, you never feel like you measure up to the greats of the sport.
“That's what makes trying so much fun.”
The Chase started with four former winners of the Brickyard 400 in the field, including four-time Brickyard winner Gordon, three-time Brickyard champion Johnson, 2003 Brickyard winner Kevin Harvick and Stewart.
But as the Chase ended, it was Stewart hoisting the Sprint Cup over his head giving both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the state of Indiana reason to be proud of this historic accomplishment.
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