DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When he pulled down the window netting of his No. 14 Chevrolet following his victory in the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 10, Tony Stewart had no clue how he had managed to navigate his way to Victory Lane.
The 40-year-old owner/driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing team struggled to comprehend how he had won the closest championship in NASCAR history over Carl Edwards after expressing his reservations some three months earlier about even making the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
As he sat in his car unbuckling himself, Stewart could scarcely believe how he had pulled it off - managing personnel issues by deciding to part ways with crew chief Darian Grubb at season’s end, and steering his way past potential potholes - to win half of the 10 Chase races and capture the third and most improbable title of his career.
Was it all just smoke and mirrors?
Or was it all just Smoke - as Stewart is known in the garage area - and everyone else in his rearview mirror?
“He doesn’t understand it,’’ said Ryan Newman, who qualified eighth for the 12-man Chase and finished 10th. “I was the second one to get to him in the car at Homestead and he looked at me and said, ‘I still don’t believe it. I don’t even know how that happened.’ ’’
With the 2012 Sprint Cup season set to get under way with today’s 54th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway - a venue where he has won 17 times but never in the Great American Race - Stewart remained at a loss to explain his extraordinary run in 2011.
“I can’t, I still can’t,’’ he said. “I wish I could explain it. The way our year went, it was like the first 26 weeks, anything that could go wrong went wrong. Something went wrong every week.’’
It caused a great deal of tension between Stewart and Grubb.
“The days we didn’t have a problem, we just missed it on the set-up,’’ Stewart said. “The days that we were good, something would happen, we would have pit strategy go wrong or something would happen.’’
Stewart was so discouraged after a ninth-place finish at Michigan left him 10th in the championship standings - in danger of missing the cut - that he climbed out of the car and told reporters that even if he made the Chase, “it would be a waste of space.’’
“Tony likes playing mind games, but he was not playing mind games in Michigan,’’ Newman said. “That was a true mild depression, call it what you want. He was not happy with the place he was at.’’
But none of Stewart’s competitors were ready to write him off as a Chase contender.
“There’s a reason why he’s a past champion, and I’m telling you, you can’t count anyone out,’’ said Edwards, who took a 3-point lead into the season finale but finished runner-up in the race and tied in the final points (2,403). He wound up on the short end of a tiebreaker for the title by virtue of Stewart’s five Chase victories to his one.
“Right now, in this sport there are so many people who are fast,’’ Edwards said. “The knowledge and the technology and the way people are able to figure things out so quickly, nobody holds secrets very long, and Tony is the perfect example.
“He was a guy going into the Chase who really didn’t look like he had any momentum, but they hit on something and they took off.”
If the first 26 races of the season were one big stumbling block, then the Chase was the launching point of Stewart’s championship run.
“Those last 10 weeks, with the exception of Dover, everything kind of went right,’’ he said.
Stewart, who became the first owner-driver to win the NASCAR title since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992, cobbled together an unprecedented Chase run, starting ninth and vaulting to first after winning the first two races in Chicago and New Hampshire.
Although back-to-back lapses at Dover (25th) and Kansas (15th) caused him to drop to seventh, Stewart climbed back to second behind Edwards with top 10 results at Charlotte (eighth) and Talladega (seventh).
When Stewart won the next race at Martinsville, he began to ratchet up the pressure - and the mind games - on Edwards.
“I knew at Martinsville, when he found a way around outside of me on that green-white-checkered, that Carl was going to have his hands full,’’ said Jimmie Johnson, whose run of five NASCAR titles was book-ended by Stewart championships. “And sure enough, he did.’’
“Martinsville was the one where I said we have just as good a shot as anybody, and we won Martinsville,’’ Stewart said.
“His mind-set was totally different,’’ Newman said. “His confidence was 180 degrees different from where he was back in Michigan.’’
And it showed in the way he went all out, following up Martinsville with another win at Texas. He kept up the pressure on Edwards in the penultimate race at Phoenix, where Stewart finished third behind Edwards and winner Kasey Kahne.
“The amount of risk Tony Stewart took in several of the races he won was unconscionable,’’ said car owner Jack Roush. “It wasn’t even in the same ZIP code of the decision-making that Carl and Matt [Kenseth] was making.
“I think for Tony to take the amount of risk that he did to win the races that he did last year, and be successful with it, was an aberration. I don’t think we’ll see a repeat of that.’’
Perhaps not, but the fact Stewart damned the torpedoes and wheeled his way to his third NASCAR crown only burnished his image as a hard-core racer.
Those who knew him back when he was barnstorming on the short tracks of the Midwest were not shocked by the manner in which Stewart took dead aim at the title.
While his previous championships with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2002 and 2005 were special in their own right, they could not compare with his latest because of how much he had to overcome.
“I think having a part in building a team and a program, that is what makes it different than the first two,’’ said Stewart, who left Gibbs Racing three years ago to join car owner Gene Haas as an equal partner.
A feisty addition
Stewart isn’t done building. He hired Steve Addington, Kurt Busch’s former crew chief, to replace Grubb and was reunited with his former crew chief at Gibbs Racing, Greg Zipadelli, to serve as Stewart-Haas Racing’s competition director.
Stewart also charged Zipadelli with helping shepherd Stewart-Haas’s newest driver, Danica Patrick, in her acclimation to a 10-race Sprint Cup schedule, beginning with the Daytona 500.
It initially appeared that the pairing of the pint-sized Patrick, a wine-loving IndyCar veteran, and the rough-hewn Stewart, who has been known to hoist a cold one every now and then, would be as odd a mixture as chardonnay and Schlitz.
But Stewart and Newman have developed good chemistry with Patrick.
“It’s comical if you get the three of us together where we know that there is no cameras and reporters,’’ Stewart said. “It’s a pretty funny conversation. She is pretty sarcastic like Ryan and I both.’’
On the track, however, “She is feistier than I was when I came into the sport.’’
While Patrick has committed to race at the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Stewart said he would not stand in her way if she wanted to make a run at the Indianapolis 500 in the future.
“It would be hard for me to tell her no considering I did it twice,’’ he said. “I never told Ryan Newman he can’t drive anything, and I won’t tell Danica she can’t drive anything.’’
Although he was still at a loss to explain how he wound up besting Edwards at season’s end, Stewart has not rested on his laurels.
“In all honesty, we have still been riding that high, but we really didn’t sit there and say, ‘Hey we are celebrating a championship,’ ’’ said Stewart, who brought all of Stewart-Haas Racing’s employees to Las Vegas for the awards banquet in December. “That lasted through the banquet then it was right back to work.
“I mean, we were immediately back on the job of trying to figure out how to do the same thing this year. It was easy to do that having Zippy and Steve Addington come on board, guys who weren’t really with us when we won the championship at the end of the year.
“Their focus was on what we were going to do this year, so it kind of got the whole mind-set of the shop to not get lazy and think about what we accomplished last year and get working on what we can do to try to repeat this year.”