Jack Roush just chasing his dreams

LAS VEGAS -- The man in his signature Panama hat, white shirt and khaki pants moved through the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, checking out exhibits like some women might shop for dresses at the mall.

As he continued through the seemingly endless aisles of the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show, heads turned. He was recognized here like Taylor Swift is on the red carpet at the Country Music Awards.

And loving it.

The competitive intensity Jack Roush feels each weekend in NASCAR, the intensity he'll feel especially strongly this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway as Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards attempts to hold off Tony Stewart for his first Sprint Cup title (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN), was lost among the rows of shiny chrome wheels, custom hotrods and scantily clad models in this aftermarket auto parts Disneyland.

Roush was laughing and joking as he and his girlfriend, Brenda Strickland, headed for an autograph session at the Ford exhibit. He was laughing like you seldom see at the track.

"I don't have as many pundits here," Roush said with a chuckle during the show earlier this month. "There's no rules here."

The 69-year-old known as "Cat in the Hat" is among his people here. He was a car geek long before he became a NASCAR team owner, attending SEMA since 1971, when he was teaching mathematics, physics and other automotive subjects at Monroe Community College in Michigan.

At the track, Roush's focus is entirely on competition. Unlike other owners, you'll often see him walking through the garage with a wrench in his hand or with his head underneath the hood.

The smile that is a permanent fixture at SEMA is replaced by a competitive scowl.

"That would be cool to see," Edwards said of Roush at SEMA. "When we're around him here he's just intense."

It's that intensity and dedication to being the best that has Roush in position to become the first owner to win championships in the Cup and Nationwide series in the same year. Heading into their respective season finales, Edwards has a three-point advantage over Stewart in Cup and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a 41-point edge over Elliott Sadler in Nationwide.

It's that intensity that sometimes makes Roush misunderstood, particularly among his drivers. It takes some, including Edwards, several years to understand that Roush has their best interest at heart.

"He pushes you right to the limit," Edwards said. "He'll push buttons. You're having a bad day, he'll make it worse for a couple of minutes. It took me a long time to realize that's his way of motivating you and making sure you realize you just need to keep digging."

There is no sugarcoating with Roush, which often makes him appear cold and uncaring even though both are far from reality. He speaks what's on his mind regardless of whether it ticks off one of his drivers or the governing body.

"When you got to your Tuesday meeting [with Roush], it was featured under embarrassment," said Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver Jamie McMurray, who drove for Roush from 2006 to 2009.

Despite being the odd man out when NASCAR forced Roush to shrink from five to four teams in 2010, McMurray holds the utmost respect for his former team owner.

"I had a lot of fans come up to me and say Jack didn't treat you right or say negative things about him," McMurray said. "Honestly, I learned a ton getting to drive for him. It was an honor to race his cars. He is the epitome of what our sport is about. He's just a racer.

"It's not about flash with Jack. It's about fast cars and dependable engines. He is an icon in our sport."

Roush is an icon in the car world. He's almost as well known in the aftermarket parts world as he is in drag racing, road racing and NASCAR. He won his first NHRA drag racing championship in 1973 with money used to sell $125,000 worth of cam shafts, carburetors, intake manifolds and other car parts at the '72 show.

"You can't get him out of here," Brenda said as Roush exchanged war stories on the "Car Crazy" television show outside the Vegas convention center.

McMurray hasn't seen the SEMA side of Roush, but he has seen him out socially enough to appreciate the owner's fun-loving side. Most of those moments came at Halloween on a Talladega weekend when Roush and Brenda dressed up and roamed the track.

"He's very laid-back and laughing," McMurray said. "It's similar to a lot of people in our sport. Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, what you see on TV, what you think you know, you don't because they are completely different individuals when you get them out of their profession."

Roush never truly is out of his profession in the automobile world, as you'll see at SEMA. One also could argue he's never out of costume, whether it's a make-believe character for Halloween or the real deal in his Panama or fedora hat.

"If I wanted to be undercover, I would be racing [in] a T-shirt from another manufacturer and I would have on a ball cap that was not related to my racing," Roush said.

There's an almost a charming sense of arrogance about Roush, whether he's reminding us that, beyond the Cup and Nationwide titles, he has a chance to win the owner's title in Nationwide or telling us about the engines he built for other road racing teams before he started his own team.

"The teams were not successful based on their own ineptitude and not my engines," Roush said. "In order to protect my reputation as a supplier to the sport, I decided I was either going to stop doing this or I'm going to own a team and do it myself."

He did it himself, winning 24 national championships and 119 races in two road racing series. He was so dominant that Ford stopped supporting him on account, according to Roush, of the fear that, if he stopped winning, people would blame the manufacturer.

That led Roush to NASCAR.

"They [Ford] asked me to go down South and help them in NASCAR, saying they'd give me technical support and a little money," Roush recalled of his 1988 entrance into the sport.

Now Roush is the face of Ford in NASCAR. He has won 125 races and two titles in Cup (Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in '04), 124 races and two titles -- soon to be three -- in Nationwide.

All that winning epitomizes the competitive side of Roush that you don't see at SEMA and other places away from the track.

"If I had one word to describe Jack, it would be intense," Edwards said. "The second is dedicated. He cares more about competing and winning and racing than … he's second to none. I don't know that I've met anyone that is like that. He's amazing."

Roush also is passionate. People will make a big deal this week about Stewart's passion as he attempts to become the first owner/driver champion since Alan Kulwicki in 1992, but as an owner, no one in NASCAR is more involved than Roush.

He's also loyal to a fault, particularly when it comes to defending the American manufacturer. When Toyota came into NASCAR in 2007, Roush was threatened to the point that he referred to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

"He's not going to shy away from something because it's politically incorrect," RFR president Steve Newmark said.

Roush has mellowed some over the years, not so much on the competitive side but on the personal side. Surviving two plane crashes, the most recent last year when he lost his left eye, will do that to a person.

"In the early years, he was a pretty tough, intense person, even outside the track," said Mark Martin, the driver Roush started his NASCAR program with. "He's lightened up over the years."

Roush lightened up so much after the second plane crash that he referred to himself as "one-eyed Jack" at a media dinner. Asked at SEMA how the crash affected his life, Roush jokingly said, "I became monocular rather than binocular."

It would be hard to imagine Stewart -- or any other owner -- using words such as pundits or monocular. But that's Roush. He'll leave you, whether it's a team meeting or an interview, wishing you had a dictionary.

"You really feel like he's the teacher and you are a student," Newmark said. "He'll impart life's lessons to you that will go beyond the racing world."

The racing world is better for having Roush.

So is the automotive world here at SEMA, where the man in his signature hat can let his hair down and smile as much as he hopes to do after Sunday's Cup finale with another championship.

"I wouldn't relate myself to being a woman in a dress shop," Roush said. "But I am like a kid in a candy store."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.