2011 RESULTS 5 wins, 9 top fives, 19 top 10s
2012 OUTLOOK He may not repeat as champion, but Stewart seems a lock to make the Chase for the sixth straight year.
HE RODE IN THE BACKSEAT OF A BLACK FORD Expedition, traveling down an empty strip of road in South Florida. In the distance, bathed in the soft morning sun, stood Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the final race of NASCAR's 2011 season, which was three days away. Holding a cellphone in his hand, Tony Stewart gazed through the tinted windows at the towering grandstands along the frontstretch, considering how, on that track, he had a chance to pull off the greatest come-from-behind upset in the history of Sprint Cup racing.
"I will do anything and everything to win that race, including wrecking somebody if that's what it takes," said Stewart, 40, who heading into Homestead trailed standings leader Carl Edwards by only three points, the closest two drivers had ever been with one race left on the schedule in the Chase era. "Two months ago we were completely out of this thing, but all I know now is that if I win the race, I win the championship. It's that simple. And I just have this overwhelmingly good feeling that we're going to get it done. I don't know if I've ever been as confident of anything in racing in my life."
A little more than 72 hours later Stewart beat Edwards to the finish line by 1.3 seconds to win his third—and most improbable—Cup championship. Indeed, Stewart's performance over the 10 races of the playoffs was the finest any driver has put together in the Chase era. At Homestead, Stewart passed a total of 118 cars ("I feel like I passed half the state of Florida," he joked), won his fifth Chase race (a record) and became the first driver-owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to hoist the Cup trophy. "Tony is as talented as any driver I've ever seen, simple as that," said Jimmie Johnson, who had won the previous five Cup titles. "He also has the strongest will of anyone in the sport. There's no one in the garage who saw this coming. No one."
Not even, it turned out, Stewart himself. Though Stewart started the season in full throttle, leading more cumulative laps (222) over the first three races than anyone in the series, he slumped badly in the summer and fell out of the top 10 in points. Stewart was so frustrated at Michigan International Speedway last June that he proclaimed he didn't belong in the Chase because he'd be taking the spot of a driver who could actually win the title.
But then his crew chief, Darian Grubb, while tweaking the setup of Stewart's number 14 Chevy, magically found an extra tick of speed before the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 19. Voilà! Yes, Stewart finished the regular season ninth in points, but once the Chase began he suddenly flashed newfound speed, motoring through the corners as fast as anyone in the series. Now the question is this: Can Stewart maintain that mechanical edge in 2012?
It won't be easy. A few days after his driver won the title, it was announced that Grubb was let go from Stewart-Haas Racing, and Steve Addington, who had been the crew chief for Kurt Busch over the past two seasons at Penske Racing, was hired to replace him. Why was Grubb fired? Neither Stewart nor Grubb has explicitly said, but the two apparently had a falling-out over the summer when Stewart lacked speed. This was the equivalent of a football coach getting canned immediately after winning the Super Bowl. "It normally takes time to build chemistry with a new crew chief, so I wouldn't be surprised if there's a period of adjustment and struggles for Stewart next season," says one Cup series driver, who requested anonymity. "But if any two people can overcome that, it will be Tony and Steve."
Addington is widely regarded in the garage as an elite crew chief. His quiet, patient, calm demeanor should mesh well with Stewart, who, although he's entering his 14th Cup season, remains one of the fieriest drivers in the sport. The two worked together at Joe Gibbs Racing, from 2005 through '08, over which time Addington served as crew chief for several other drivers. Stewart has spaced his titles apart (the first two came in '02 and '05), but he should be a lock to qualify for this year's Chase. He's advanced to the playoffs in all three of his seasons at SHR—and, as he showed in 2011, he's eminently capable of winning at every playoff track.