Twice in three nights, at almost exactly the same spot at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Tony Stewart showed once again that he might very well be the most talented driver in the world today.
Saturday night, as he began Lap 154 in the 2006 Pepsi 400, Stewart drove his No. 20 Chevrolet to the low side of the 2.5-mile oval and came from about seventh or eighth into second place. It was a bold and, ultimately, decisive move, leaving him only surprise leader Boris Said to pass after another caution set up a restart with three laps to go.
Stewart needed less than a lap to accomplish that and head off to his second straight victory in this event.
Two nights earlier, in the first International Race of Champions race held on a road course since 1991, 12 cars took off at the green flag. Stewart started 11th, and at about the same spot he gave himself plenty of room while his competitors careened into the left-hand turn that took them into the infield portion of Daytona's road course.
He came through the first set of turns in fourth place. It was just a matter of time before he got to the front, and once he was there it didn't matter that Max Papis and Max Angelelli, two of the world's more accomplished road racers, were chasing him.
"I was really, really happy with the road course win," Stewart said. "That's what IROC is all about, testing your skills against theirs. ... I thought that race would be the most even race for all the drivers. ... For the stock car drivers, we're used to driving that type of car. For the road course drivers, they were used to techniques that you use on a road course and I felt like that kind of evened out the competition a little bit more."
In getting the win Saturday, Stewart had the advantage of a strong race car and a Joe Gibbs Racing team that kept him at or near the front all night. But when Stewart took four tires on a yellow before a restart with nine laps to go, he was 10th.
If Stewart was going to win a race he'd dominated, he needed to move up with haste. The move that got him to second certainly expedited the process.
"I just got a good push that gave me a run," Stewart said. "Those guys really weren't paying attention to me, they were paying attention to the two-wide racing that they were involved in. I got by Denny (Hamlin), and then Casey Mears was stuck in the middle and working on somebody on the outside, and I don't even think he even saw me coming because he didn't even flinch."
A victory by Said, who'd started from the pole and picked up the lead late by staying out on the aforementioned caution, would have made for quite the Cinderella story.
"If he won the race... it was going to be pretty cool," Stewart said. "I hated to spoil it for him but we just had a car that was too good tonight to not go out and win."
With victory in hand, Stewart felt he had no choice but to climb the fence to the flag stand. He first did that when he won this race a year ago, and it has become something of a trademark. More importantly, Stewart said, it has become something the fans expect.
"There was no way I was going to let those race fans down," he said. "I wasn't going to stop until I either got all the way up or fell off on my butt."