As recently as last spring, though, it felt as if one driver was in control of the Cup series as a whole: Jimmie Johnson, winner of five consecutive titles from 2006 through '10. Johnson's dominance clearly turned some fans away—especially those who felt they had nothing in common with Mr. Five-Time, who is married to a former model and has a mansion in Charlotte and an apartment in Manhattan. "You're not going to tune in to the race if all you hear ahead of time is that Jimmie is going to win, Jimmie is going to win," said Denny Hamlin midway through last season. "Our sport needs a new champion."
NASCAR got that new champion in Stewart, who expertly drove the high line around Homestead in that Nov. 20 classic to beat Edwards by 1.3 seconds and win the 2011 Cup trophy. (Well, kind of new—he had won in '02 and '05.) Stewart is the anti-Johnson. Gruff, free speaking and proud of the fact that his beer of choice is Schlitz. He is as down-home NASCAR as a Saturday-night dirt track race out in a country field. Stewart, who still lives part time in his middle-class childhood home in Columbus, Ind., is a throwback, a blue-jeans-wearing driver who appeals to old-school fans in a way that no other title winner has since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the early '90s. Stewart, no doubt, will be the centerpiece of NASCAR's campaign this season to bring back older fans who left the sport during Johnson's reign. That, combined with those young drivers who broke through last season, could provide a potent combination for NASCAR.
Fifteen minutes after Stewart won at Homestead, he climbed onto a stage in the infield, where he was handed the Sprint Cup trophy by NASCAR president Mike Helton. The two stood together for several moments as cameras flashed and popped in the night. Both men had reason to be beaming: Stewart for the title just won, Helton for reasons larger than that—for the success of the season and, perhaps, for a bright future that has suddenly arrived.