A Foyt for today

Tony Stewart put on a superb show in the closing rounds of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. In the first 26 of 36 races he had failed to win, publicly criticising his team and crew chief Darian Grubb. But in the last 10 rounds, known as ‘The Chase for the Sprint Cup’, Stewart came to life, winning five races and driving magnificently to clinch the season-closer and the title at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Stewart and championship rival Carl Edwards finished 1-2 at Homestead after Tony lost time in the pits, first to fix damage to his car’s nose and then recovering from trouble with a wheel gun while changing tyres. In the end Stewart charged into the lead on the race’s final restart with Edwards chasing him all the way. Edwards led the most laps but couldn’t do anything about Stewart, crossing the line one second behind the winner.

Stewart and Edwards finished the year tied on points, but Tony prevailed because he had more wins – five versus one. It’s the first time in NASCAR ’s 63-year history that the championship has finished in a tie. “If this doesn’t go down as one of the great title battles in history I don’t know what will,” said the winner.

This is the third time Stewart has won the Sprint Cup and his first as a team owner/driver since buying into Stewart/Haas Racing at the end of 2008. He also becomes the first owner/driver to win NASCAR’s premier championship since the late Alan Kulwicki achieved the feat 20 years ago.

Stewart claimed USAC’s midget and sprint car titles in 1995 and went on to win the IRL championship in ’97 before switching to NASCAR in ’99 with Joe Gibbs’ team. He was competitive straight away, winning two titles with Gibbs in 2002 and ’05 before buying a half interest in machine tool manufacturer Gene Haas’s outfit. When he bought into Haas’s team Stewart also made a deal with Rick Hendrick for a supply of cars and engines, considered to be the best in the business.

Stewart, 40, is one of NASCAR ’s most popular drivers, second only to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Brash and outspoken, he’s had his run-ins with NASCAR and the media and is often ready to offer a jibe or a dig at anyone who rubs him up the wrong way. He is a great antidote for those who dislike five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s metronomic professionalism.

Since becoming a team owner in 2009 Stewart is a little more buttoned up, but only just. He’s still a slightly overweight, plain-talking Indiana boy who loves to race anything. He owns a pair of midget and sprint car teams and three Midwestern dirt tracks, including the legendary Eldora Speedway.

After winning an unprecedented five championships in a row Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports had a slightly off year in 2011, although Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr made the Chase. Johnson and Gordon both won races and Jeff enjoyed his strongest season for some time. Earnhardt failed to win any races but at least he made the Chase and also signed a long-term contract to continue with Hendrick until 2015. Kasey Kahne has replaced veteran Mark Martin in Hendrick’s fourth car for the coming year. Kahne is an excellent driver and should make Hendrick’s team even better.

Meanwhile the crowds continue to dwindle at many NASCAR races. At some tracks the swathes of empty seats are shocking to take in and it will be interesting to see if and when this trend bottoms out. Selling tickets is a tough proposition in today’s economy and it’s difficult to see the climate improving in the immediate future. But the good news is that after four years of decline NASCAR ’s television ratings – the most important measuring point of course – were up almost 10 per cent in 2011.

No doubt Stewart will help drive interest in the sport. His car carries the number 14, that of his hero AJ Foyt, whom Tony is like in many ways. NASCAR couldn’t have a better champion.