Homestead, Fla. NASCAR's bad boy finally made good.
Tony Stewart won the Winston Cup championship Sunday with an 18th-place finish in the Ford 400. It wasn't the way the intense, combative 31-year-old wanted to win his first stock car title, but he got the job done.
Kurt Busch, the hottest driver in the series, won the race for his third victory in the last five events.
Stewart came into the race knowing he needed only to finish 22nd or better to beat Mark Martin in their championship duel. Martin gave it a game try, finishing fourth but coming up 38 points short.
"Unbelievable!" Stewart said as he got out of his car and thrust his arms skyward. "We never gave up. I'm really happy. This team deserves this."
Stewart, who has undergone anger management sessions for his fiery temper that has led to fines and probation, then hugged crew chief Greg Zipadelli.
"We had a tough year, it's been up and down," Zipadelli said. "It was worth it."
Joe Gibbs, the former coach of the Washington Redskins, added Stewart's championship to the one earned by Stewart's teammate, Bobby Labonte, in 2000.
Martin said Saturday he would need a miracle to catch Stewart, who came into the race leading by 89 points. He didn't get it.
"Those guys were just a little bit stronger than us, but what an effort," said Martin, 43, now a four-time series runner-up and never a champion. "The only regret I have is that I could have provided more leadership to this team so we could have scored an extra 100 or 150 this year somewhere along the line - but we didn't and I couldn't."
Martin was docked 25 points after NASCAR discovered an unapproved spring on his Roush Racing Ford on Nov. 3 in Rockingham, N.C., or the final difference would have been even closer. An appeal of the penalty was turned down Saturday.
"We made it close," Martin said. "We gained points on the guy three races in a row so, in a way, I wish it wasn't over. I'm as proud of that as anything we did all year long."
His car owner, Jack Roush, said Gibbs' team "had the best program all year and they deserve the championship."
Stewart, who had won two of three previous races on the 1 1/2-mile oval, started sixth but never contended in this one, driving a conservative race that saw him fall a lap down on lap 192 of the 267-lap event.
The champ hung in and got the lap back in the late going, moving onto the tail of the lead lap by passing then-leader Dale Jarrett on lap 205. He was able to stay ahead of the lead pack and, with the help of a yellow flag on lap 227, remained on the lead lap to the end.
"We've always ran so good here. That's why it was such a surprise when the car went off like it did," Stewart said. "Luckily, Zippy did some aggressive changes to fix the thing. We got in the front of the pack again and were able to race the guys in the lead lap ahead of us.
"It wasn't a piece of cake by any means."
Stewart, NASCAR's Rookie of the Year in 1999, last won a championship in 1997 in the Indy Racing League.
Busch, who started from the pole, finished the season on a roll, charging from 12th to third in the points over the last eight races. The 24-year-old driver, completing his second season, finished 159 points behind Stewart.
Rookie Ryan Newman gambled and stayed on track during a caution period late in the race as all the other leaders pitted. Busch came out fourth, also trailing rookie Jimmie Johnson and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
Busch made it to second place before John Andretti's blown engine brought out the last caution on lap 237. He put continuous pressure on Newman after the green flag waved on lap 245, finally taking the lead on lap 257 and pulling away to the fourth win of his career, all this season.
Joe Nemechek finished second, followed by Jeff Burton, Martin, Gordon, Newman, Bill Elliott and Johnson.
Stewart finished fourth in the points as a rookie, sixth the next year, and a distant second to Gordon a year ago. Considered a favorite this season, he got off to a disastrous start, blowing an engine and finishing last in the Daytona 500.
It took until the second half of the season for Stewart to get hot. As other leaders stumbled in front of him, he moved to the top on Oct. 6 in Talladega - the 30th race of the 36-race season - and stayed there.
Stewart spent much of 2002 under a cloud as his temper got him in off-track trouble. After punching a photographer in August in Indianapolis, NASCAR put Stewart on probation, and that's the way he finished the year.
Stewart, who wiped away tears and mopped his face with a towel before climbing from his car, admittedly does not like dealing with the media and mobs of fans.
He has repeatedly said he doesn't believe the champion should have any more responsibility or have to be an ambassador for the sport.
"I don't know if I'm qualified to be a leader of this sport. Guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are what made this sport what it is," the Indiana native said when he accepted the trophy.
"All we can do is the best we can. The greatest thing was coming down pit lane and seeing my peers from different teams. They're what make the series what it is. I'm not going to change anything. I'm not the leader of this sport."
Martin praised Stewart as "a racer's racer."
"Down deep, I'm just like Tony. I'd rather be down the road at a dirt track," he said.
Stewart grew up racing on the Midwest's short tracks and readily admits his first love is racing at the smaller tracks.
In 1995, he became the first driver to win the U.S. Auto Club's midget, sprint and Silver Crown series' in the same season.
Newman and Johnson battled for Rookie of the Year honors throughout the season, turning in two of the best first-year performances in NASCAR history.
Johnson finished fifth in the points and Newman finished sixth, but Newman was named the top rookie following the race. He finished the year with one win and 22 top-10 finishes, while Johnson won three times, matching Stewart's rookie record, and 20 top-10s.