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Tony stewart was 22 years old and living rent-free in a friend's house in Rushville, Ind., when he finally pulled up to his crossroads. For months he had been working in a local machine shop, eight hours a day, five days a week, running a drill press for $5 an hour and wondering if he had what it took to become a professional racer. Then, one afternoon early in 1993, Stewart asked his boss if he could borrow a few hundred dollars for a plane ticket to Phoenix. The Copper Classic, a USAC event for open-wheel cars, was going to be held there in a few days, and Stewart, who had been racing on weekends in the Midwest, wanted to test himself against West Coast drivers. His boss gave him the loan, and neither Stewart's life--nor American motor sports--has been the same since.
"I wound up finishing second in the race, and I made $3,500," recalled Stewart last Thursday as he sat in the back of an Agusta helicopter that was ferrying him to Homestead-- Miami Speedway for the final race of the 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup season. "When I got home from Phoenix, I looked at the paycheck and calculated how long it would take me to make that much in the machine shop. I said to myself, It's now or never. And that's when I decided to go for it."
On Sunday, almost 13 years after that brass-tacks decision, Stewart solidified his status as one of the top drivers of his generation when he wrapped up the second Cup championship of his career by finishing 15th in the Ford 400. Stewart nursed a poor-handling car all evening at Homestead, avoiding trouble while letting others race up front for the win. Greg Biffle edged out his Roush Racing teammate Mark Martin for the victory, but it wasn't enough for him to catch Stewart in the standings. Stewart finished 35 points ahead of Biffle and Carl Edwards (who tied with Biffle but, with fewer wins, took third) to cap one of the most consistent seasons in NASCAR history. Over the final 22 races Stewart had 19 top 10 finishes. Over one stretch in the summer Stewart won five times in seven starts, one of the most impressive runs in the last three decades of Cup racing.
"Tony is a true American racer," says Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champ. "You can put him in any car on any track, and he'll be fast. He's good on the short tracks, the intermediate tracks, the restrictor-plate tracks and the road courses. He's special."
How special? Well, consider that Stewart is only the 14th driver in NASCAR history to win more than one title. Given that he also has an Indy Racing League championship on his r�sum�, as well as several dirt-track crowns, it's clear that Stewart, the onetime machinist, is quickly making a place for himself in the pantheon of alltime great American racers, alongside Earnhardt, Foyt, Pearson and Petty.
And he's far from done. Says Dale Earnhardt Jr., "Tony's as talented as they come. I guarantee you, this won't be his last championship."
For Stewart, however, it will be a hard one to top in terms of satisfaction. "It's been a very special year," said the driver whose hotheaded ways had earned him the nickname Smoke. His previous title--and much of his career--had been marred by clashes with the media and other drivers, but this year he showed a newfound sense of calm. "This championship means ten times more than the one I won in 2002," says Stewart. "I've had more fun this year than at any time in my life."