Tony Stewart is nobody’s fool.
Regardless of what some fans may think of him, Stewart knows full well that, as a NASCAR champion, he’s held to a high standard of conduct – both professional and personal.
He can’t lapse into the Stewart of old, the one, you may remember, who had a penchant for losing his temper, smart-mouthing fellow drivers and media alike and, on occasion, engage in physical confrontation.
I certainly recall the days when it was suggested he undergo anger management.
But I’ll be honest. That particular Stewart hasn’t existed for quite some time. At least I haven’t seen him.
Oh, I know he can get ornery and hostile from time to time, but, with rare exceptions over the years, I don’t think there has been a single competitor who hasn’t displayed such traits.
Truth be known I’m pretty sure you and I have once and a while.
My point is that today’s Stewart has already shown he can be a charming and witty guy.
For example, he fueled the humor at the NASCART Awards Banquet in Las Vegas when he convinced five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to go to the head table when he was introduced.
When done, Johnson was puzzled and the audience entertained. Good stuff.
Stewart said he had other shticks planned, including an Elvis suit, but NASCAR thought that might go a little bit far in a formal ceremony.
Stewart could have simply been formal and perfunctory, going through the motions as he was recognized as that champ.
Instead, he was genuine. And I think he’s likely to remain that way throughout his 2012 reign. He knows what he represents.
He’s been like this before. When he won the 2005 championship, his second, I was fortunate enough to be part of the television show “NASCAR Victory Lane.”
We were conducting a remote interview with a happy but tired Stewart from Homestead, where he clinched the championship.
Stewart had been asked a plethora of questions, several of which he had heard repeatedly, and when it was my turn I couldn’t think of something different to ask him.
So I inquired about what he was going to do during the off-season. Was he going to take a cruise, maybe?
I admit it – it was dumb, stupid and inane.
“Uh, I think I’m going to be too busy for anything like that,” Stewart deadpanned.
“Well,” I said sheepishly, “I had to ask.”
“No, no,” he responded. “I understand what you meant.”
And then he went through a litany of his planned activities and duties and provided the viewers with some fresh information.
When the show was over one of my colleagues commented that here was a time Stewart would have considered me a dolt – and said so.
“Reckon winning a championship kinda changes a guy, doesn’t it?” he added.
Yes, and while this third title has, again, acted as a positive catalyst for Stewart the man, I’m not sure he really needed it.
He was riding high long before he got to Las Vegas.
Before the Chase began Stewart was nowhere close to a pleased, happy-go-lucky fellow – and no wonder.
When the “playoff” began he hadn’t won a race and was a championship contender only because he managed to hold on to ninth place in the point standings.
He admitted his team didn’t deserve to be part of the Chase. The Stewart-Haas organization was “bumbling and stumbling.”
He wasn’t hostile but he wasn’t happy. He clearly did not like the direction his team had taken.
Then Stewart and his team did what champions do. They came roaring back, rising from the ashes like a Phoenix.
Stewart won four races in the Chase to close within three points of Carl Edwards when the Homestead finale came around.
In that race he overcame adversity, went three- and four-wide to make passes and won for the fifth time, – that’s half the races in the Chase – with Edwards second. They were tied in points at 2,403, but Stewart claimed the title because he had more victories.
And think of it – he earned every one of them in the Chase, something he for which he once declared he and his team were unsuitable.
To capture a title in such a manner, and help create NASCAR history, has to make any competitor feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.
There’s something else; something I think may be just as satisfying to Stewart, perhaps more so, than a title alone.
He did it as the first driver-owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
While Kulwicki’s accomplishment will always have its place in NASCAR lore, it came during a different era.
It came just before NASCAR’s boom, when teams flourished and multiplied. Single organizations fielded not one, but two, three, four or five cars and would have had more had not NASCAR drawn the line.
When Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing in the risk to own a team, he, too, opted for the multicar format. Ryan Newman was hired to be his teammate.
But, given the established powerhouses he was up against, a championship seemed unlikely.
It was achieved in just the third year of Stewart-Haas’ existence.
Yes, I know the team got tremendous technical support from Hendrick Motorsports. However, getting such assistance is one thing. How well it is used is quite another.
That he won a historical championship in the manner he did, and as an owner to boot, seems more than enough to make Stewart a satisfied, content, happy and laid-back man.
If you ask me, I don’t think he’ll find it difficult. I think he’s had a lot of practice over the past few years.