CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson in the outside lane to win at Martinsville Speedway, he’d made, in his mind, a statement that nothing will get in his way of a third NASCAR championship.
He celebrated with a customary victory lap, and as he came around the final turn, Stewart flipped off his engine to better soak in the roar of approval from fans pressed against the fence celebrating his improbable win.
“I turned the engine off, I coasted, because I couldn’t hear (the fans) over the engine when it was running,” Stewart said. “So I shut it off, and when I heard it from that crowd, it was like, ‘Yep, I know where they are wanting this to go.’ ”
Stewart pumped his fist when recalling that moment of adoration at the end of the Oct. 30 race. He leaves no doubt that, despite wins in the first two Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races, Martinsville was the place that convinced him he could run down points leader Carl Edwards and be the driver who dethrones five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
It would be fitting, too. Stewart was the last driver to win a title before Johnson’s record run and he’s within striking distance to be the bookend to Johnson’s titles. With two races remaining, Stewart goes to Phoenix this weekend trailing Edwards by three points in the Chase standings.
Regardless of the outcome, his turnaround will rank among the greatest in NASCAR history.
Stewart was seriously on edge nine weeks ago, when he needed a clean run at Richmond to ensure a spot in the 12-driver Chase field. He’d slumped through the summer – typically his strongest part of the season – and had openly said his Stewart-Haas Racing team didn’t deserve a spot in the Chase.
Still, he made it, but refused to look at the 10-race title hunt as a fresh start and a chance to rewrite his season. When asked days before the Chase opener at Chicago who could win the title, Stewart left himself off the list of contenders.
Despite wins at Chicago, where several drivers ran into fuel mileage issues, and New Hampshire, where leader Clint Bowyer ran out of gas in the closing laps, Stewart still didn’t believe he was a credible title threat. Dover, where he struggled all day and finished 25th, confirmed his belief.
He hung around through Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega, but his finishes kept him in the middle of the pack.
Then came Martinsville, where Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb made midrace changes to the No. 14 Chevrolet and Stewart refused to give an inch in a frantic battle with former teammate Denny Hamlin to stave off being lapped. He then worked himself into position to challenge Johnson on a final restart and used the outside pass that he believes will define his season.
“I’ve asked, I haven’t talked to everyone, but in casual conversations, nobody ever remembers anybody passing for the lead on the outside at Martinsville,” he said. “That’s where the excitement came from. I think we did something that nobody has done before and that was a statement of where our mind is. We’re going for it.”