HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Let's return to the Thursday before the Chase opener when Tony Stewart stood in a downtown Chicago restaurant and declared himself one of five drivers who had no chance to win the Sprint Cup championship. He was so convinced that he promised to call himself a "bumbling idiot" if he did.
Stewart is no idiot.
He is a three-time champion.
A guaranteed Hall of Famer.
What the driver/owner of Stewart-Haas Racing did in winning a Chase-record five times in 10 races, what he did in winning Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to capture the title over Carl Edwards by virtue of the tiebreaker with most wins, was the stuff of legends.
He overcame a hole in his grill that twice dropped him near the back of the pack before the race was 30 laps old. He roared back each time with a vengeance, almost taunting Edwards over his radio with the confidence he had in himself and his team. He made bold moves as we've come to expect from Kyle Busch, going four-wide and three-wide on restarts to pick up multiple positions or take the lead.
He passed an amazing 118 cars.
"Man, I feel like I passed the state of Florida," Stewart said. "I would have to say under the circumstances, this was one of the greatest races of my life."
Not the stuff of idiots.
Stewart is a champion because he didn't lose total confidence in crew chief Darian Grubb, who was told early in the Chase that he wouldn't return to the organization next year. He is a champion because Grubb made the right call to audible from a four-tire stop to two when a lug nut stuck in the air gun, and to stretch the second-to-last fuel run and give his driver a chance to hold off Edwards for the win.
Stewart is a champion because he didn't give up on himself.
As entertaining as it was, this had nothing to do with the trash-talking and mind games Stewart used the past few months to try to unnerve Edwards. This was about a 40-year-old driver who finally got up on the wheel like he did early in his career and a team that rallied behind him in a way family members do when things are tough.
If anybody ever willed himself to a title, Stewart did.
Nobody said it better than Edwards.
"This night is about Tony Stewart," said the Roush Fenway Racing driver, the first person to congratulate Stewart after the race. "They rose to the occasion."
Stewart truthfully didn't see this coming that sunny day at the LaSalle Power Co. in Chicago when he crossed himself, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch off the list of contenders. His goal was to improve the team, perhaps win a race or two, and build toward next season. His goal was to replace Grubb.
Then he won at Chicagoland.
Then he won again at New Hampshire.
All of a sudden the chemistry that had been lacking for 26 races was there. So were the confidence and swagger in the driver. When Stewart fell to seventh place -- 19 points behind Edwards -- after finishing 25th at Dover, he didn't give up.
He survived a 15th at Kansas the following week, then rolled off finishes of eighth, seventh, first, first, third and first. When Stewart said Edwards "better be worried" after the win at Martinsville four weeks ago, he truly believed the championship was his even though he trailed.
"If this doesn't go down as one of the greatest championship battles, I don't know what will," Stewart said as rain pelted him in Victory Lane.
It will be because Stewart didn't back into the title. He did it by winning with a style and flare seldom seen in this sport.
"He's done some incredible things in his career, but I'm guessing this tops them all," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said.
Said SHR co-owner Gene Haas, who in 2009 basically gave Stewart half of his lower-tier organization to lure him away from Joe Gibbs Racing, "Tony proved today he is the greatest driver in the world."
But there is no doubt Stewart will go down as one of the greatest after what he pulled off in this Chase, what he pulled off on this muggy night in South Florida.
"Did I make it exciting enough?" Stewart radioed series director John Darby as NASCAR set up the postrace celebration.
Darby didn't have to respond. Everyone watching in the stands, everyone watching on television, even the driver watching from second place with a Chase-best average finish of 4.9, agreed.
Edwards didn't see this least probable of all scenarios coming to fruition, but those who know Stewart did. Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief for his first two titles at JGR and rumored to be heading to SHR as competition director, said before the race he'd "never seen Smoke so relaxed and having so much fun, talking so much smack."
Confidence that was a problem prior to the Chase never was on this day. After falling to 38th when Stewart had to pit to fix a hole in his grill, he said, "They're going to feel like s--- after we kick their ass after this."
He reiterated that thought when he had to pit again -- falling to 32nd -- after getting into the back of David Reutimann because he was over aggressive. But like he did before, Stewart roared back through the field.
"Where are we at?" Stewart asked over his radio on Lap 70.
Told 12th, he replied, "Oh yes! This is not over!"
It was far from over.
If this doesn't go down as one of the greatest championship battles, I don't know what will.
”-- Tony Stewart
By the time rain brought out a delay that lasted one hour, 14 minutes, Stewart was up to fifth with Edwards leading. As he walked down pit road during the delay, Stewart said on ESPN, "We're fixing to wear him out. We're going to make this interesting before it's over -- if we haven't already."
It wasn't just talk. After restarting in fourth beside Edward, Stewart quickly moved to second. On Lap 122 he passed Gordon for the lead and a bonus point.
From then on it was game on.
And if Edwards didn't realize it then, he did after a restart on Lap 147 when Stewart was ninth and he was fourth. In the time it took Stewart to go four-wide he was up to third.
By Lap 152 he was in first.
Jaws dropped in the stands, as well as the media center. Even Stewart was a bit surprised he pulled it off.
"It showed how bad I wanted to win this thing," Stewart said. "During the season you give guys a little more room than that. During a championship, you can't hold anything back."
That's why Stewart is a champion and not an idiot. For 10 weeks he didn't hold anything back.
Some will want to compare his feat to that of Alan Kulwicki's 1992 title, the last time a driver/owner won it all. But Kulwicki did it all, from working under the hood to pushing the car through tech.
"Alan did it on his own," Stewart said.
But don't sell Stewart short. He carried this team once he realized he could trust Grubb and his equipment as much as his own abilities. He milked the fuel when Grubb rolled the dice. He made the daring passes when they had to be made. He told the team not to panic after the lug nut issue dropped him to 12th.
And when the race was over, Stewart radioed to the man he basically fired and said, "Darian Grubb, you are the man! You did this, bud!"
Let's return to the Thursday before the Chase opener. Stewart really didn't think he had a chance. For some reason he didn't believe his team had what it took to accomplish this.
"I would have bet against us," Stewart said.
Instead, he accomplished what childhood hero A.J. Foyt called the best race he'd ever seen. Instead, he was talking like a driver capable of winning the title again next year and the next.
"We're not done yet," Stewart said.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.