Around NASCAR, they call Tony Stewart "Smoke." The reason for the nickname has changed over the years. In his early racing days, he used to burn out his right rear tire in turns. As a young driver in NASCAR, he had a thing for blowing up engines. At his racing peak, he was such a hothead that the smoke seemed to pour from his ears. Now the smoke is mellow, like a good cigar, being savored by a driver who has finally come to enjoy his brilliant career.
Stewart passed Juan Pablo Montoya on the high side with three laps left to win the FedEx 400* at Dover, Del., on Sunday. He's had a terrible season, by his standards. Dover was the 13th Sprint Cup race of the season, and this was his first top-5 finish. But wins count big, and so he's up to 16th in points. That's just outside the cutoff for the Chase at the end of the season, but there's a lot of turning left between now and then.
*When FedEx is the race sponsor, there's not a whole lot you can do with that in Victory Lane. Somebody stacked a bunch of FedEx boxes on top of Stewart's car after the win. What was his crew supposed to do with those? Deliver them overnight?
It was a bit of shock to look up his bio and see that Tony Stewart is 42. In some ways, he's the NASCAR version of Tim Duncan. He won championships as a young driver (2002), in his prime (2005) and on the back side of his career (2011). He has been brutally consistent -- only once in 14 years has he finished the season outside the top 10. That year, he was 11th.
He's also one of the few drivers left from what I think of as the B.D. -- Before Dale -- period. In a terrible crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, Stewart's car flipped end-over-end, then barrel-rolled and caught on fire. But nobody remembers that crash, because at the end of the race Dale Earnhardt ran into the wall and died.
After Dale, NASCAR has never been quite the same. The star drivers -- Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson -- have all lacked the rough mix of artistry on the track and charisma off the track that Earnhardt had. A few months ago, driving through rural Ohio, I saw an old tractor at the top of a hill with Earnhardt's slant 3 painted on the side. Fans still root for their drivers. But Earnhardt owned their hearts.
Early in his career, Stewart made himself hard to love. He spun out Gordon on pit road. He bullied reporters and punched a photographer. He went on the radio and compared NASCAR to professional wrestling. He did to his travel trailer what The Who did to hotel rooms. Earnhardt was the John Wayne of racing. Stewart was more like John McEnroe.
But by the time of his second championship, in '05, he was winning with more grace. He started climbing the fence at the start/finish line after wins (sometimes his crew came along). He started thanking his fans more than airing his grievances. He can still get hot -- he fired his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car last year after they tangled at Bristol -- but in general, he's a gentler Smoke.
He's also been co-owner of his own team (Stewart-Haas Racing) since 2009. Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick run under his banner. Sliding into the owner's chair made it look like he was getting ready to slide out of the driver's seat. But in 2011, he made one of the great late-season runs in NASCAR history, winning five of the 10 Chase races to win the Sprint Cup on the last day.
Stewart has done some astounding things in a race car. Before he drove a lap in NASCAR, he won titles as an Indy-car driver. He was one of the last to attempt the famous "Double Duty" run, racing the Indy 500 in the afternoon and flying to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600 that night. The last time he tried, in 2001, he finished sixth in Indy and third in Charlotte.
But in some ways, the most astounding thing is how much people like him now. After his win at Dover, the first thing out of his mouth (after the obligatory thanks to his sponsors) was a nod to the crowd: "All of our fans out there … we've let 'em down for a long time." At 42, Tony Stewart still has fans, and he's still winning races. Let's not lose that in the smoke.