Where there's 'Smoke', there's much more than fire

Tony Stewart can drive the wheels off anything. A two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, Indy Car champion, multiple USAC championships ... He can flat drive.

But his biggest and longest-lasting accomplishment in racing may be his ability to lead a team to championship standing in short order. He did that again Sunday in the Lennox 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Teammate Ryan Newman won the pole and the race while Stewart started second and finished second.

That doesn’t happen often. In fact, it hadn’t happened since April 7, 1957, when Fireball Roberts and Paul Goldsmith qualified and finished 1-2 at North Wilkesboro Speedway driving for DePaolo Engineering. During the 1989 Daytona 500, Hendrick teammates Darrell Waltrip and Ken Schrader came close to pulling it off, finishing first and second respectively -- swapping positions in which they started. You probably remember that win, because it was accompanied by Waltrip’s version of the “Ickey Shuffle” in Victory Lane. (Shaking my head.)

Stewart took a step of faith in 2009, forming his own NASCAR Sprint Cup Series organization with Gene Haas. He left a 10-year ride with a championship-winning organization to pursue a dream. Talk about guts! Especially in a down economy. It takes a very confident, positive-thinking person to pull that off, and he succeeded. But that’s just the beginning to what defines him.

On Saturday night, Tony was competing in a World of Outlaws race at Eldora Speedway -- a dirt track he owns in Ohio. By the time Tony made it back to New Hampshire early Sunday morning, he only had a few hours to sleep before he had to prepare for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race. That’s the racer in Tony. He craves speed and will go the extra mile to satisfy it even if it means testing his endurance. We’re talking about a guy who has run a 500-mile race and 600-mile race in the same day. Twice.

Stewart will be at Texas Motor Speedway for the “Smoke Show” on Aug. 16 -- a once-in-a-lifetime fantasy driving camp he hosts annually to raise money for Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas Chapter. From driver intros and a pre-race ceremony to a Victory Lane celebration complete with cowboy hats and the actual Turnbull 45 Colt-style single-action revolvers, participants experience everything a NASCAR driver goes through on race day. It’s as close to the real deal as you can get.

Tony spends an entire day with some very dedicated race fans, giving them personalized instructions from inside the cockpit. Nothing to it, you say? Have you been to Texas in August? It’s downright hot, but Stewart puts on his fire suit and jumps in those stock cars, cracking jokes and showing his usual witty demeanor. I don’t know many people who could keep a good attitude in that kind of situation, let alone volunteer an entire day out of their schedule for an event like that.

Between funds raised by the “Smoke Show” the past three years and him donating his winnings from the Prelude to the Dream race at Eldora Speedway, Stewart has raised $850,000 for children in North Texas. That’s almost $1 million!

The hard-scrabble reputation -- temperamental, photographer-shoving, sarcastic quotes in the media ... they all make up the image and reputation many have of Stewart. And it’s well-earned. And Sunday we saw the results of his leadership.

On Aug. 16, Stewart will demonstrate that leadership in another manner as he helps the kids of North Texas.

Pretty broad shoulders.