Legend of Tony Stewart cemented in full

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Under falling confetti, rain and celebratory Coca-Cola sprayed like champagne, Jimmie Johnson pushed through the mob scene. Jeff Gordon wasn't too far behind him.

Tony Stewart hadn't even gotten out of his car to enjoy as dramatic a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship as you'll ever see captured and the old champs – nine Cups between them – had to get to him and pay their respects.

This wasn't just any title won; this wasn't just any season finale. This was something magical, something out of NASCAR's founding days.

No old bootlegger ever roared through the woods and away from some Southern sheriff any better or any bolder than Tony Stewart did here on Sunday.

"He won that by racing his ass off," Johnson would say later. "Hell yes, I'm impressed."

Over a tense, twice rain-delayed five hours, Stewart beat second place Carl Edwards by 1.3 seconds in the Ford 400, enough to also best Edwards for the Cup on a tiebreaker (more total victories).

Twice Stewart came from the very back of the pack to swing through traffic with startling ease. Early on he survived his front grill getting punctured (fixed up, in part with duct tape). Another time he battled past a disastrous pit stop (lug nut got stuck).

At one point he swooped low, making it four-wide to pass three cars in the blink of an eye. He was hell on wheels off restarts. A stunning 118 times he passed someone, all the while he never stopped barking and trash talking – "Kicking ass!" he once shouted into his head set.

[ Related: Was the 2011 Chase finale the greatest NASCAR race? ]

He was, as day turned to night, the best of everything Tony Stewart is about – unapologetically competing at the very edge of what's possible, risking, without a hint of concern, complete disaster in the pursuit of total glory.

"It's a dangerous deal when you give a guy a shot and he can't lose something," Stewart said afterward.

This was the Legend of Tony Stewart, cemented in full.

This was the old dirt-track hero out of Columbus, Ind.; a rough-around-the-edges, impossibly real, driver's driver. This was the guy who once drove a tow truck around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, dreaming the entire time of making a living on the inside.

This was the impatient driver who earned his nickname, "Smoke," in part for his propensity early in his career of pushing his car until the engine blew. He's only slightly more restrained now.

You think NASCAR's gotten too corporate, too boring, too technical?

Well here came Stewart with a performance for the ages, something out of NASCAR's wildest dream come true – 1-2 in the Chase battling 1-2 in the season finale, winner takes all.

"At one point I thought we had him," said Edwards, who entered Sunday's finale with a three-point lead.

At dozens of points they did have him. Edwards was brilliant himself, leading the most laps, making a series of smart tactical decisions, avoiding any obvious major mistake.

[ Related: Will Tony Stewart still fire his crew chief? ]

Edwards' average finish during the Chase was 4.9, which would have been good enough to win every other year of the system.

Just not the year Tony Stewart refused to lose – five times, in fact, which is how many of the 10 Chase races Stewart won.

"There was one option for us," Stewart said. "We had to win the race. … If I crash this thing on the way to the front, so be it."

Stewart did everything he could to force Edwards into a mistake. He was relentless during media sessions all week, noting his edge in experience, pointing out the pressure Edwards was under, dismissing Edwards' pole position and obviously fast car. "I beat that kid up," Stewart said.

"Forget about that [rearview] mirror," one of Edwards spotters shouted as Stewart kept coming and coming, pressing and pressing. He was impossible to ignore. He was impossible to hold off.

Edwards never cracked, which made this even more impressive. "That's all I had in the end," Edwards said. "That's as hard as I can drive."

Stewart won on sheer force of will, on driving skill, on courage and peddle-through-the-floor aggressiveness.

"He's the one going three or four wide when everyone else is scared," crew chief Darian Grubb said.

"Whatever happens," Stewart said, "happens."

[ Related: Carl Edwards handles his second-place finish with grace ]

He wound up rocketing his Chevy around the final few dozen laps in the lead, Edwards in his mirror now, unable to gain an inch. This is was a tour de force.

"I think Tony drove the best race of his life," said A.J. Foyt, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Stewart's personal racing hero.

"Brings a tear to your eye," Stewart said.

This is the ability, the personality and the power that has always set Stewart apart. It's what built such allegiance with his fans and what makes so many believe in him. No matter how frustrating he can be, no matter how erratic, everyone knew he could come out and drive like this, drive in a way that leaves even the legends in awe.

Stewart turned 40 this year. He isn't a kid anymore, even if still acts like one. He's a bachelor who never shies away from discussing his interest in drinking beer and considers a perfect day driving ATVs with his buddies back in Indiana.

"I still have the same friends I had growing up," he said.

Life's been good, but time has been ticking away on his career. He'd won it all twice, which wasn't enough for him. Since his last title, in 2005, he hasn't been a contender even once. Jimmie Johnson began dominating the sport, the picture of consistency that Stewart's wild fluctuations could never match. Like every other driver, Stewart said, he wondered if he'd ever get another crack at the Cup.

Now, almost out of nowhere, here came another chance, here came maybe his best last chance.

And so here came Tony Stewart with an all-time, old-time performance that simply wouldn't allow it to slip away.

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