HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Tony Stewart was smooth and steady for an entire race. An entire season. An entire championship run.
Stewart cruised to his second NASCAR championship in four years Sunday, capping an uncharacteristically calm season for the former Bad Boy. He won races, kept his temper in check and avoided every major incident long enough to cement himself as one of the greatest drivers of his time.
Needing only to run a clean race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he hovered just outside the top 10 and away from any potential danger. He ended up 15th, winning the title by 35 points over Greg Biffle, who won the Ford 400 for the second straight year by besting teammate Mark Martin in a door-to-door finish.
For Stewart, it was the perfect finale to what's been a perfect season both on and off the track.
He had a tortured run to the title in 2002, punching a photographer the lowest point of a rollercoaster season pocked by bad behavior and blowups. So he'll treasure this title, a gift to the team that stuck with him through thick and thin.
After an emotional embrace with crew chief Greg Zipadelli — interrupted by chants of "Climb the fence!" from his fans — he dedicated the win to his Joe Gibbs Racing crew members, who showered him in Coke from the risers above.
"I put the team through a lot of hell ever since I've been with them but they never gave up on me," Stewart said. "Zippy didn't want to win it the way we did in 2002. It was nice to do it and do it right."
Stewart became just the 14th driver in NASCAR history with more than one championship and joined four-time winner Jeff Gordon as the only active full-time drivers with multiple titles.
"Once you win more than one, it definitely puts you into an elite group and you are going to be looked upon different," Gordon said. "You win one, you are looked at differently. Win two and it takes you to another level."
Gordon, who failed to qualify for the Chase for the championship, rallied over the final 10 races and finished the year 11th in points. That was good for a $1 million prize and a trip to the series banquet in New York.
Stewart's championship was the third for Gibbs, now coach of the Washington Redskins, and first for his son, J.D., who took over the leadership role when his father went to the NFL.
"Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate," Joe Gibbs said over a telephone line while Stewart accepted the Nextel Cup trophy, "and I'm picking up the tab!"
"You're darn right you're picking up the tab!" replied Stewart, who won at least $5.8 million with the title.
Indeed, Gibbs was instrumental in getting Stewart to finally settle down.
One day during the offseason, he ordered the driver into the race shop for a heart-to-heart talk with his team. He wanted the crew to open their hearts and make Stewart see just how difficult he made their jobs.
When the meeting was over, Stewart was a changed man.
He moved back to Indiana into his childhood home, surrounding himself with family and old friends who had a calming effect on his frequent mood swings. It showed in his personality and in his performance, especially during the summer when he turned it up a notch to become the hottest driver in NASCAR.
Reeling off a string of five victories in seven races, nothing could beat Stewart, not even his old nemesis — Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track had tormented him his entire career, denying him time after time in both stock and Indy cars.
But not even Indy could derail Stewart this season. He finally scored a win at the Brickyard in August.
"To win at home in the Brickyard was a race of a lifetime," he said.
For the first time all season it pushed Stewart into the points lead, where he would stay for 13 of the final 14 weeks. He was on top at the start of the 10-race Chase for the championship and fell off the leaderboard just once, when he dropped to fifth after Round 2.
Stewart raced his way back on top a week later and never looked back, notching six top 10 finishes during the Chase. By the time he got to Sunday's finale, he needed only to finish ninth or better to clinch the title.