Stewart managed to shake off slow start

What started out as a lost season for Tony Stewart wound up as
the best time of his life.

Few who saw it will forget a grinning Stewart standing in
Victory Lane last Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway trying to
conduct an interview while crewmen from his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing
Chevrolet team poured bottle after bottle of soda on his head.

But it would have been hard to convince Stewart that day would
come when he was mired in a streak of bad luck, mechanical problems
and bad decisions that stalked the 2002 NASCAR champion through the
first 14 races of the 2005 season.

After finishing 29th at Pocono Raceway in June, Stewart was 10th in the
standings, 380 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. To that point,
Stewart, who started the season with a seventh-place finish in the
Daytona 500, had more finishes of 15th or worse (eight) than top-10s (six).

Asked about the low point of his season, Stewart grimaced and said,
"Probably the first how many races were the low point. It really
wasn't one particular race. It was just our whole season, really,
from the start, other than Daytona."

Things turned around the week after that Pocono disappointment,
with Stewart finishing second to Greg Biffle at Michigan. Stewart
backed that up by breaking through for his first win of the year
the following week on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., then added
a win the next week on the big oval at Daytona.

He was off and running toward another title.

Stewart went on to get all five of his season victories in a
span of seven races and closed out the year with 19 finishes of
ninth or better in the final 22 events.

"How do you beat that?" asked Jeff Gordon, a four-time series
champion and the only other active driver with more than one Cup
title. "It was a heckuva streak and they did it because that team
had everything together -- the right equipment, the right attitude
and a great driver."

It's well documented that the guy who used to be known as
Terrible Tony has somehow morphed into Terrific Tony these days. He
jokes with reporters, smiles for photographers and fans, gives tons
of money and time to charity -- particularly Kyle Petty's Victory
Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill and disabled children -- and
seems to be really enjoying life.

That certainly wasn't the case in 2002 when he punched one
photographer and shoved another, said rude things to media and fans
and was seemingly under a black cloud the entire season, even as he
drove away with the championship.

He has called that year "one of the worst personal years of my

His mother, Pam Boas, says the deaths of good friends Kenny
Irwin and Adam Petty and mentor and childhood idol Dale Earnhardt
during the two previous years put Stewart in a funk of confusion
and pain.

"It was a difficult time for him and he didn't know how to deal
with all that pain," his mother said.

So what changed? Where did this new Tony Stewart come from?

"You know what? He's 34 years old now," she said. "It was
time to grow up."

But his mother also credits a move earlier this year back to the
family home in Columbus, Ind., for some of the peace Stewart is
feeling these days.

"He came home to Indiana," she said the day before her son
wrapped up the championship. "He lives in the house where he was
raised. It's a place where he can find peace and contentment,
without a lot of pressure from people wanting something from him."

Whatever helped him make the transition, there's little question
that this Tony Stewart will enjoy his second title a lot more than
the first one.

Stewart insists he's not smarter or a better driver than he was
in 2002. Just more able to go with the flow and deal with the
intense pressures of life in NASCAR's fast lane.

"You know, I feel I'm just a piece of the puzzle," Stewart
said. "I think that we're just a better team. Our organization has
grown and grown stronger.

"The greatest strength of Joe Gibbs has been assembling the
right people to do the right jobs. And the great thing with that is
that when we were behind early in the season, we didn't know which
area was going to get us caught up."

He said everybody on the team, including the driver, dug in and
tried a little harder.

"We all tried to get that extra half percent or percent that we
thought we needed to be where the Roush and Hendrick teams were,"
Stewart noted. "I wasn't driving the car any different the first
three or four months of the year than we did the remaining part of
the season. So, obviously the team was the biggest part of that
championship equation."

Of course, the team gives Stewart plenty of credit, too.

Crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who somehow held things together
during the 2002 season, acting as the intermediary between the
incendiary Stewart and the rest of the crew, said the difference is

"I think that's a lot to Tony's maturity in him showing up and
relaxing and wanting to be part of the team and actually taking
some ownership in it this year," Zipadelli said. "It obviously
makes my job and everybody else's a little easier and little bit
more fun."