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Posted: August 12, 2009 1:54 p.m.

Stewart's Cup stock at an all-time high

Two-time champ has finally earned his rightful spot atop the NASCAR world

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Do you remember who won the last Sprint Cup championship not named Jimmie Johnson? It’s been a while -- three years and some change. I’ll give you a hint. It’s the same guy who is going to win it this year.

Tony Stewart served notice Monday that he’s the man to beat heading into this year’s Chase. With his dominating win at Watkins Glen -- his record fifth win at the 11-turn road course, Stewart officially threw the gauntlet down. If you’re going to win the Cup this year -- and this mean you too Mr. Three-time, reigning champ, you’ll have to go through Stewart to do it.

Not so long ago, Stewart sat atop the NASCAR world. In 2005, everyone willingly accepted him as one of the greatest drivers in the sports’ history and an ambassador champion. He won the Brickyard 400, five races and dominated the second half of the season en route to his second championship. But over the three subsequent years since, Johnson has ripped off three straight Cup titles and Stewart slipped off the radar so-to-speak.

While Stewart dominated in 2005, the strides he made in his ability to work with the media, fans and even his own teammates is what really vaunted him to greatness. At that time, Mark Martin called him his racing hero and the racing world praised him as a mature champion. My how things have changed, yet remain the same.

Fast forward to this year. After bottoming out at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 -- winning a career-low one race, amidst controversy at that; and moving to start his own Cup team, Stewart appeared ready for the scrap heap. That’s why what he’s done this year is so fitting. So much has been made of Stewart running so well with his new team that it’s almost hard to remember Dale Earnhardt Jr. was once the most popular driver in NASCAR. He was, but not anymore.

For years Stewart appealed to a certain fan -- ironically the same type which pulled for Earnhardt’s father Dale Sr. His rough-and-tumble, personality sometimes overshadowed his driving talent. But 11 years into his NASCAR gig, Stewart doesn’t need to prove anything on the track. He did that long ago, winning two championships and races on every type of track. Until this season though, Stewart had yet to reach across the isle to the core of that same fan base the old man understood better than anyone. No way. Those fans don’t like whiners. They like tough guys, not bullies and who the heck would drive an Indy car. Not Dale Sr. The funny thing is, the two are more similar than many think.

Both Earnhardt Sr. and Stewart came up on similar paths. Neither had enough scratch to finance a legitimate racing effort. Both drove the local dirt tracks for meager earnings, wrenched on their own cars and often slept where they dropped their duffle bags. The similarities don’t stop there.

When Senior made it to the big dance, and started to win, he drew a rabid fans base made up primarily of hard-working, blue collar, country music listening folk. Earnhardt Sr. was country as was NASCAR. Stewart on the other hand found his way to NASCAR’s highest level a different way via the Indy Racing League. Sure he slugged his way through the Midwest short tracks -- often considered the embodiment of grass roots racing, but he was different. He didn’t speak The Intimidator’s language. Or did he and we just didn’t realize it?

At first, Stewart failed to capture to hearts of that working class crowd. When Dale Sr. died, the opportunity was there, albeit slightly as those fans went to Dale Jr. But now that it is clear Jr. isn’t the same type of driver -- style, skill or otherwise, a paradigm shift has happened. Why, because Stewart has finally bridged the gap with his personality. He is now a hard working guy who people depend on for jobs. He is the kind-hearted boss that remembers your wife and children’s name. He hunts and drives a bulldozer over his vast property in rural Indiana. He’s a blue collar, beer-drinking fat dude that truly cares about people.

Stewart’s run thus far in 2009 has captured everyone’s attention. His fans are thrilled and those who used to hate him now cheer for him. On the track he’s in the heads of the competition once again -- and he’s the one guy you don’t want in there if you Johnson, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. He’s finally appeasing to those fans who work 55 hours a week before spending what’s left in the checking account on a weekend with the family at the track. Those who once booed him for being what they felt was a spoiled brat are finally appreciating the best driver in NASCAR. He’s the face of an organization and quasi face of several others. He’ll always cast a shadow at Joe Gibbs Racing and you can’t mention Chevrolet Racing, Home Depot and Hendrick Motorsports without mentioning Smoke.

The talent has always been there. Stewart’s racing resume is perhaps the most diverse of any American driver in history. What once held him back -- has now tuned out to be even more powerful than his driving and perhaps his greatest asset. Smart people in life turn their greatest weakness into a viable strength.

Stewart has the Midas touch. When he sets out to do something, he does it. Forget about the odds. Don’t play poker against him. You’ll lose. Just like that magical summer of 2005, when he reeled of five wins in seven races and a ridiculous string of top-5’s, he’s the favorite to win the championship once again. He’s been written off before only to come back and prove again who the best driver in the sport really is. Now he’s also NASCAR’s favorite son. It’s a hat he’s worn before, as has Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. But Stewart has finally captured the fan base he’s always deserved. It’s taken some time. Earnhardt Sr. ran hard for more than 20 years. It took him a while too. In the end though, both drivers drove hard, talked fast and earned everyone’s respect. It took a while but Tony Stewart is finally the face of NASCAR. Just like the old man was.

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