Tony Stewart: Street-smart and surly

MIAMI -- My distinguished colleague, Ed Hinton, is going to tell you how Carl Edwards would be the best new champion to take over NASCAR's top spot from "Five-Time" Jimmie Johnson.

Clearly, Ed has spent too many years inhaling exhaust fumes.

Tony Stewart is the man, hands down. I have little doubt the majority of fans would agree with me.

Smoke would be the people's champ, the regular guy who's just as comfortable racing a sprint car on a dirt track as he is a Cup car on a superspeedway. Heck, the man owns a dirt track.

Edwards rides a bicycle. So do I, but it's not exactly an enviable hobby to the guy drinking a cold one on the Talladega infield.

Tony fits right in with the NASCAR masses. The man loves Burger King, and it's not just because the company gave him millions of dollars to sponsor his car.

Edwards didn't get that washboard stomach by eating hamburgers. Cousin Carl is as polished as a Marine's shoes just before inspection.

Stewart is a little rough around the edges. Actually, he's a lot rough around the edges, just what most NASCAR fans want to see in a driver. Clean shaven is not a priority for Smoke. The gruff look suits him.

Edwards looks like the guy across the desk deciding your fate on a bank loan.

Both drivers hail from the Midwest, and both still live there -- Edwards in Missouri and Stewart in Indiana. But be honest. If you're hosting a party and need someone to bring the ice chest and help on the grill, who ya gonna call?

Smoke is just more fun, even when he's surly, which is most of the time. He loves to get his digs in, especially to us media folks. Now what NASCAR fan doesn't enjoy a little media bashing by the master insulter?

Stewart's idol is A.J. Foyt. You can't get more Americana racing purity than that.

I don't know who Edwards' idol is, probably Albert Einstein or Missouri native Mark Twain. Edwards is book-smart, studying at the prestigious University of Missouri.

Stewart is street-smart, studying at the School of Learning the Hard Way. And he has made the most of those lessons.

What better man to be the Cup champion than the guy who owns his team? Now that's old-school NASCAR. An owner-driver champ is something many experts thought was impossible in this era.

Stewart can become the bookends champ to Johnson's five-year run. Tony won the title in 2005 (the last one before Johnson took control) and now he can win the first one after JJ's streak.

Smoke also would become only the ninth man to win three or more championships. He's still the only driver to do it under both systems -- before the Chase started (his first title was in 2001) and in the playoff format.

Only two men still racing have any realistic shot of equaling that feat: Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon.

And what better message that the Chase format works than to see the man come back and win the 2011 title after struggling to make the playoff and not winning in the regular season?

Stewart is doing it now the old-fashioned way -- by winning. He has four victories in the Chase. Edwards has zero playoff wins. Carl could finish behind Stewart on Sunday and still win the title.

If that happens, it's just flat wrong. Give the people a champion who was winning races at the end.

Stewart is everything NASCAR fans want in a champion, including a little bit cocky. Johnson always came across as being a little too polite.

Hey, NASCAR fans don't want the nice guy. They want the guy who does a little trash-talking and backs it up.

After winning at Martinsville in the seventh race of the Chase, Stewart threw down the gauntlet. "Carl better be worried," he said. "He's not going to have it easy the next three weeks."

It ain't bragging if you prove you mean it. Stewart won one week later at Texas with Edwards one spot behind him.

Even after finishing one spot behind Edwards this past weekend at Phoenix, Stewart never flinched.

"We have a third and two wins in the last three races,'' Stewart said. "We're going to keep the pressure on him. We'll make him sweat it out."

Smoke is going for it. He's all-in. That's what NASCAR fans want to see.

He won't back down. He won't stop coming. And that's why so many fans love him.

Edwards is a class act who might end up the 2011 champ, but he won't be the champion of the people -- the fans sitting in the backstretch bleachers with T-shirt tans and beer koozies.

Sorry, Ed, they want the 40-year-old dude with an attitude. Stewart is the champion they need.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.