Then, on June 6 and 7, the Home Depot team, owned by Joe Gibbs, the Washington Redskins' coach, tested at Michigan International Speedway. Midway through the test, Stewart and his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, hit the jackpot: They found a way to set up the suspension on the number 20 Chevy so their car would grip the track through the turns just a smidgen better than their competitors'. "If you think I'm going to tell you what we've found, you're crazy," says Stewart, whose recent hot streak has vaulted him into second place in the standings, behind Jimmie Johnson. "But this is the best stretch of racing that I've ever had."
Two weeks after the test Stewart finished second in the Batman Begins 400 at Michigan. Seven days later he won on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. The week after that he took the checkered flag in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. After he crossed the start-finish line to win that race, he drove back to the flag stand. A few days earlier he'd had a dream about scaling the fence after a victory and taking the checkered flag from the flag man; now he wanted to make it a reality. So Stewart crawled out of his car and, with his helmet still on, climbed the 12-foot-high fence. He then grabbed the flag, drawing from the fans one of the loudest roars in Daytona's storied history.
Two weeks later, Stewart won again, in New Hampshire. When he again climbed the fence--"Honestly, I'm too fat and too old to be doing that," he says--he was amazed at what he saw: Fans wearing red-and-white Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirts and blue-and-yellow Jeff Gordon hats were cheering wildly. Stewart's method of celebrating had fired up fans who had once relished booing him. The image makeover of Tony Stewart, NASCAR's onetime bad boy, was officially a success.
The light blue hearse weaves through traffic, cruising the streets of Columbus on a blue-sky afternoon. Stewart bought the hearse a few months ago. "I'm going to trick this baby out," he says, grinning. "I can't wait to roll in front of a club in this thing." As Stewart drives, he waves to friends in other cars and on the sidewalk. In Columbus the legend of Smoke ( Stewart's nickname) is billowing. People are still talking about what he did one night last December, when 28 inches of snow fell on the town. During the blizzard Stewart hopped into his Humvee and towed to safety more than 20 motorists who'd become stuck in the snow. At three in the morning, when he couldn't find anyone else to assist, he commandeered one of the city's plow trucks and pushed the snow off the streets until 7 a.m.
Stewart has gone out of his way to be, in his words, "just one of the guys" in Columbus, even joining the Moose and Eagle lodges. He usually has a pack of longtime friends with him wherever he goes, and this Sunday all of them--and about half the town--will drive 45 minutes north up I-65 for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, Stewart's backyard track. He attended his first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he was four and has been fantasizing ever since about a win at what he considers the mecca of motor sports. In his career as both an open-wheel and stock car driver he has made 12 starts at Indy; his best finish is fifth.
"I'd give my Cup championship away in a heartbeat for a win at Indy," says Stewart. "If I win, I'm going to stop in Turn 2, and somehow, I'm going to try to get to my suite above the turn. Then maybe I'll grab a beer, go back and get the checkered flag, then celebrate with the crowd. It would be fulfilling a lifelong dream."
Here are two predictions, race fans: Stewart's dream will come true on Sunday. And on Monday, the chocolate shakes--extra thick--will be flowing in Columbus.