Tony Stewart was 22 years old and living rent-free in a friend's house in Rushville, Ind., when he hit a crossroads. For months he had been working in a 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, he asked his boss if he could borrow money for a ticket to Phoenix. The Copper World Classic, a USAC event for open-wheel cars at Phoenix International Raceway, was going to be held in a few days, and Stewart, who raced on weekends in the Midwest, wanted to test his talent against West Coast drivers. So he asked his boss for a loan, and neither Stewart's life, nor American motor sports, has been the same since.
"I got the loan and wound up finishing second in the race, and I made $3,500," Stewart recalled as he sat in the back of an Agusta helicopter that was carrying him to Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17 for the start of what Stewart would later call the most important racing weekend of his life. "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."
In NASCAR's season finale at Homestead, almost 13 years after he made his decision, Stewart solidified his status as one of the top drivers of his generation when he wrapped up his second career Cup championship by coming in 15th in the Ford 400. Stewart, who finished 35 points ahead of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards in the final standings, joined an exclusive club: He became the 14th driver in NASCAR's 58-year history to win multiple titles. Among current drivers, Stewart is only the second to have won more than one Cup championship. ( Jeff Gordon, who has won four, is the other.) Though Stewart didn't win any of the final 10 races of 2005, his average finish of 8.7 during the Chase was second only to Carl Edwards's 8.4. And during the final two thirds of the season, Stewart was as consistent as any NASCAR driver in recent memory: Over the final 22 races of '05 he finished in the top 10 an astonishing 19 times.
" Tony Stewart, in my eyes, is the greatest race car driver I've watched drive in this era," says Mark Martin. " A.J. Foyt might have been that when I was a little boy, but Tony Stewart is my driving hero."
"Tony is a true American racer," says Gordon. "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."
"Tony's as talented as they come," says Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He's also one of the most genuine guys in our sport. He was one of the few people who stepped up for me when my dad died. He opened his home to me and offered me his car, his helicopter. He's a guy who really cares about his friends, and I guarantee you this won't be the last championship he wins."
For Stewart, though, it will be a hard one to top in terms of satisfaction. "It's been a very special year," he says of a title run that was far less stormy than his previous one. "This championship means 10 times more than the one I won in 2002. I've had more fun this year than at any time in my life."
All season long Stewart could be seen smiling when he talked to his crew and hamming it up with the media. Which prompts the question: What happened to Tempestuous Tony, the hothead nicknamed Smoke, who infamously shoved a photographer in 2002 and used to challenge other drivers to fights in the garage?
To understand Stewart's dramatic change in demeanor, you must go back to the final race of 2004. Minutes after Stewart hopped out of his Home Depot Chevy at Homestead, he told friends that he was packing his bags and heading west. For six years he had lived just north of Charlotte, the hub of NASCAR, but now he had decided to move back to his childhood home in Columbus, Ind. The move made Stewart happy, and it transformed his team. "I can hit the reset button here--and nobody bothers me," he said one day last summer. "My neighbors think of me as the same punk kid who smacked baseballs into their aluminum siding."
Relaxed and upbeat, Stewart improved not just his attitude but also his listening skills. The communication between Stewart and his crew in 2005 was as free-flowing as it has ever been in his six-year Cup career. In October '04, in a meeting at Joe Gibbs Racing in Charlotte, several crewmen told Stewart that in the past his heat-of-the-moment tongue-lashings had bruised egos. As a result, some in the crew were reluctant to speak to Stewart when problems arose.