Stewart in the fast lane

CHICAGO -- An iPod, a cell phone and a bag of chips. That's what 19-year-old Kiira Toepper used Wednesday afternoon to help her pass the five hours she spent standing, sitting, kneeling and laying down outside a North Side Office Depot waiting to meet her hero.

She wore a faded orange Home Depot No. 20 cap that matched her faded orange Home Depot No. 20 purse, seemingly oblivious to the groundbreaking news her idol had shared with the world a year earlier, from her hometown no less.

It was a year ago this week -- Friday, to be exact -- when Tony Stewart stood at a podium at the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet and announced he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to partner with Gene Haas and form his own NASCAR Sprint Cup team, Stewart-Haas Racing.

Though the announcement was filled with optimism and hope, most critics saw it as the funeral for Stewart's on-track career, the ceremonial end of his dominance in the sport. Stewart had won 32 races and two championships in 10 years with Gibbs, and some publicly wondered if he would ever find the winner's circle again.

After all, Haas CNC Racing, the team Stewart was taking over, had never won a thing. First-year teams rarely -- if ever -- are successful. And no driver-owned team had won a NASCAR race in more than a decade. The list of failed entrepreneurs included Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Geoffrey Bodine and Bill Elliott.

And yet Wednesday afternoon, as Toepper and her three friends texted, tweeted and Facebooked waiting for Stewart's return to Chicago, the man known as "Smoke" was comfortably atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings with a 180-point lead over Jeff Gordon. With eight races to go until the Chase for the Championship, he is the first driver-owner to lead the points standings since 1992, when Alan Kulwicki won the points championship.

"The success has come quicker than any of us would have dreamed," Stewart said. "But I'm excited about it."

After last weekend's victory in the Coke Zero 400, Stewart now has won three races and has 13 top-5 finishes in 2009. Sure, the Depot has switched from Home to Office, the number has changed from 20 to 14, the name on the paychecks is now Stewart's and the faces around him have entirely changed. But the results are shockingly the same.

"There were a lot of people who were wondering why we went from the top of auto racing to a start-up," said Office Depot senior sponsorship manager Jeff Owen about the decision to end its sponsorship with Carl Edwards and back Stewart. "But with Tony, it was a no-brainer. And look -- here we are again, less than a year later, back at the top of auto racing."

This week Stewart returns to Chicagoland Speedway, the track where he not only announced his intentions to become an owner, but where he has dominated. In eight races at the 1.5-mile oval, Stewart has six top-5 finishes and has led 395 laps, more than any other driver.

"I've always been good here," Stewart said. "It's a place I like. This place is really getting racy as far as finally being able to move around and change lines and run anywhere from the bottom to the top. It's a fun track because of that."

Though the hours and responsibilities have increased, very little has surprised Stewart in his new role. Part of that, he believes, is his experience as an owner in the World of Outlaws and USAC racing series and the ownership of Eldora Speedway. Stewart and those around him believe that helped prepare the driver for ownership. So, too, did learning from Gibbs, one of the most respected owners in the sport. Stewart said on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, he plays the role of owner. But the moment he leaves for the track, he becomes merely the driver.

"I don't want to sit there and worry about what the tire bill is for the weekend," he said. "I want to worry about making sure I know what I need to do as a driver. I was really emphatic when I spoke to [crew chief] Darian Grubb with the fact that I work for him on the weekends. I'm not his boss. He's my boss on the weekends."

Whatever the set-up, it's worked. While Stewart sits atop the point standings, teammate Ryan Newman is seventh. The new team has been just as successful off the track, where Stewart is challenging Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the top spot in merchandise sales. Should the trend continue, Stewart could potentially jump Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. as the sport's highest-earning driver. All this at a time when our country is in the middle of an economic downturn.

"The fact that the sport is definitely changing enabled him to get these sponsors lined up, and get these people lined up, and create this environment to where he's going to make more money if he's an owner and driver at the same time," said fellow driver Kurt Busch. "So his marketability, the way he's teamed up with Brand Sense, those guys have done a tremendous job to give him the exposure levels that bring in top-quality sponsors."

And in today's NASCAR world, being a successful driver is about far more than winning on the track. It's about smiling, shaking hands, posing for pictures and winning off the track as well. Which brings us back to Toepper. The blond-haired, blue-eyed girl and her three friends had crisscrossed the city and suburbs Wednesday, driving from Joliet to Orland Park and then Bedford Park to meet drivers Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick. But it was this stop, to see her favorite driver, that mattered most.

"I know I'm going to cry," Toepper said before Stewart arrived. "I just know the tears are going to start flowing."

The appearance was one of 17 Stewart will make for Office Depot this year, but the first that included a presentation in which Stewart passed out backpacks to area schoolchildren as part of the Office Depot Foundation's "Back to School Backpack Celebration." Stewart also will drive a special "Back-to-School" themed car in Saturday night's race.

When Toepper and her three friends got in line a few minutes past noon, Stewart still was in Indianapolis, wrapping up a news conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After the quick flight to Chicago, the brutal rush-hour drive from Midway to Lakeview, the backpack presentation and a series of media interviews, Toepper's moment had arrived. And the poor teenager didn't stand a chance.

After spotting her ragged Home Depot hat, Stewart suggested she upgrade to the new Office Depot model. When Toepper explained she simply didn't have the money for a new hat the driver reached under a desk, pulled out an autographed red No. 14 Office Depot cap and handed it to her. The girl melted, her eyes filling with tears she couldn't stop from streaming down her face.

"I'm excited, I'm embarrassed, I'm absolutely freaking out," she said later, her emotions still spiraling out of control. "I can't believe Tony Stewart gave me a new hat. And I can't believe I just stood there crying. I'm so embarrassed."

The exchange lasted all of 15 seconds, but they were 15 seconds Toepper will never forget. And 15 seconds that gave a glimpse into the success of NASCAR's newest owner.

Said Stewart, while signing a gas can for the next fan in line: "You know, that's always the way it seems to be with me and girls. I always make the girls cry."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.