INDIANAPOLIS – With sunburned necks and beer on their breath they craned and stretched and chanted his name – Tony Stewart's orange-clad, blue collar fan base waiting 10 deep near victory lane for a glimpse of their man.
Stewart won the Brickyard 400 again Sunday, and here was the heart of his hard core fans who flooded Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch their irascible, irrepressible hero deliver on the track they all cherish most.
Stewart dedicated his victory to all of them, all the folks in all the stands around the country who find themselves on the receiving end of "all the (expletive)" from the backers of some other more polished, more politically correct driver.
In truth, they wouldn't have it any other way. He neither. They don't just see themselves in him, in his brash, kick ass ways; he sees himself in them, the loyalty, realness and salt of the earth values that come from growing up hard in Southern Indiana.
It's why a couple years ago he moved out of Charlotte and back to his hometown, little Columbus, Ind., where he can be himself while grabbing an ice cream at Zaharako's on Washington Street.
"My fans like us because we call a spade a spade," Stewart said. "We wear our emotions on our shoulders. Never have to wonder where you stand with us. We're not going to give the vanilla answer.
"The people that want the corporate image, clean cut, short hair, no beard, they can pull for someone else."
They never will be able to fully polish up NASCAR as long as Stewart is driving. You can't shine a sneaker. Not that anyone who has anything to do with Stewart would want to. He is unapologetically himself, the good and the bad.
He isn't afraid to cuss on ESPN, to admit he might celebrate by polishing off what's left of a case of Schlitz, or to trade paint and insults with fellow drivers and NASCAR officials alike.
He's pushed Robby Gordon, threw a heat shield at Kenny Irwin and verbally clashed with everyone from Jeff Gordon to Kyle Busch to his own teammate, Denny Hamlin. He punched a photographer back in 2002, knocked a tape recorder out of a reporter's hand in 2001 and just this year insinuated the sport was fixed by comparing it to "wrestling."
Needless to say, he doesn't care what everyone, if anyone, thinks of him. Actually, that's not true. When asked if he was upgrading from a celebratory Schlitz (or seven) he first scoffed at the suggestion anything could taste better before getting at least a little conscious of his image.
"I don't want anybody from ESPN talking about how irresponsible I am," he mocked.
That is what one those talking suits in Connecticut said about him for admitting he was getting some beer to mark his victory in Chicago a couple weeks ago.
"Heaven forbid you actually have fun in life."
To say things like that play well to the masses, especially here, just 45 minutes up the road from Columbus, is understating it.
He may not have the most fans, but no driver connects with his base more than Stewart. And nothing is more important to both Stewart and his supporters than winning here at Indy, where Stewart first attended a race at age 5 and dreamt about while working a series of real jobs before becoming a star.
"When I was driving a wrecker for a living, I was driving down 16th Street and Georgetown Road (just outside the track) thinking, 'Man, what would it be like to be 150 yards inside that fence, running 200 miles an hour?'"
The guy isn't about commercials or fame or much of the fancy stuff. He mostly just loves to drive and he only knows how to drive one way.
He almost blew his shot at the legendary Brickyard 400 on Friday when trying to win the humble Subway 50 on a half mile, dirt track he owns in the cornfields of Ohio. With 10 laps remaining, he got caught with the immortal Chub Frank, went head first into the wall and slid down the front stretch sideways.
"You only live life once," Stewart shrugged.
When he got a half joking, half serious look from J.D. Gibbs of Gibbs racing, Stewart just laughed.
"It's a lot easier to ask for forgiveness than permission."
Of course all those toes he steps on, all those feelings he mangles by never playing nice, leaves plenty of drivers (and their fans) angry with him. He doesn't care, of course. Except to appreciate that to pull a bright orange Stewart t-shirt on and head into the grandstand on Sundays is to deal with a little more than, say, another Junior supporter does.
"I know my fans take heat from other fans probably more than most," he said. "That's my fault.
"But, you know, days like today are days that you repay them with a win at the Brickyard."
So he said thanks. Albeit by swearing on national television, a move that will probably cost him some Cup points.
Not that it mattered. Outside the fans watching the press conference on big screen televisions lapped it all up. Tony Stewart had won again, won his way, won without apology.
If it didn't come with a little drinking and swearing, it wouldn't be half as fun.
- Tony Stewart