If high-strung Tony Stewart and his 700-horsepower engine can keep from imploding in Sunday's Ford 400, he'll motor to his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship after just four seasons on the circuit.
With it, car owner Joe Gibbs will claim his second title in the sport since leaving the Washington Redskins for stock-car racing. And NASCAR will inherit its first truly modern-era champion, with all the freshness and foibles that come with the supremely gifted yet self-absorbed professional athletes of today.
Few take issue with Stewart's talent behind the wheel. But his periodic outbursts -- cursing his ill-handling racecar on live TV, smacking a tape recorder out of a reporter's hand and shoving a photographer -- have cost him thousands in fines, landed him on probation and resulted in counseling with a sports psychologist who now accompanies him to every race.
Ever since seven-time champion Richard Petty set the standard of behavior for stock-car racers decades ago, NASCAR drivers have been expected to help promote the sport, presenting a wholesome, God-fearing image and courting the loyalty of fans, corporate sponsors and journalists alike.
Then came Stewart, who since age 8 has lived for two reasons: to race cars and be left alone.
With NASCAR's 2002 championship tantalizingly within reach (Stewart needs only to finish 22nd among Sunday's 43-car field), the question turns to how Stewart will handle the demands that come with wearing stock-car racing's $3.75 million crown.
"Maybe we'll see if we can hire Richard Petty to do it for me," Stewart sniped Saturday afternoon, asked about his potential fitness as NASCAR's champion and good-will ambassador. "Maybe I'm wrong in this, but the last time I checked we were running for a points championship. I don't think I'm running for political office."
Still, longtime racing journalist Monte Dutton, who chronicled Stewart's 2000 NASCAR season in a book, "Rebel With a Cause," thinks it's possible that winning the Winston Cup title could serve as a catalyst for Stewart's seemingly arrested emotional development.
"I hope it will eventually mean that Tony will sort of calm his demons and learn to uphold his responsibilities," Dutton said. "But I don't think that's particularly close to happening."
Of course, it's no certainty Stewart will win the title in Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Mark Martin trails by 89 points -- hardly insurmountable, given that a driver can earn as many as 185 points in a race. His task would have been easier had NASCAR reversed the 25-point penalty it levied two weeks ago after an unapproved spring was found in Martin's Ford during a post-race inspection. Roush Racing, which fields Martin's No. 6 Taurus, appealed in a closed-door hearing with NASCAR's hand-picked three-member National Stock Car Racing Commission this morning. The penalty was upheld, 3-0.
While disappointed, Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing, said he considered the matter closed.
"You can only play Don Quixote and Sancho Panza so long before you have to wrap it up," Smith said. "When I woke up this morning, I was pretty sure that the oceans wouldn't boil, and pigs wouldn't fly, and that NASCAR wouldn't change its mind. That all got corroborated today."
At 43, Martin is a veteran racer whose own championship dreams have been denied three times, finishing second in the title race in 1990, 1994 and 1998. The 1990 loss, to the late Dale Earnhardt, was the most bitter. Martin had been docked 46 points earlier in the season for an illegal carburetor and ended up losing the title in the final race by 26 points.
Martin said today he can't remember far back enough to know how he feels about the 1990 penalty. But 12 years later, he finds himself in a stunningly similar position: tortuously close to the title, his task complicated by a NASCAR penalty and needing the front-runner to stumble to close the gap.
"With the deficit we have, if Tony doesn't have a problem, we're not going to have a shot at it," Martin said. "But miracles happen sometimes. It's not over yet."
Stewart, by contrast, enters Sunday's race in fine shape. He'll start sixth, while Martin lines up 34th, back in the field where the driving is reckless and wild wrecks are far more likely to snare innocent passers-by.
Stewart also thrives on the flat Homestead oval, having won here in 1999 and 2000.
"I like this track," Stewart said. "I'm pretty happy with my car. So in all reality, I'm probably about as relaxed as I've ever been in this situation."
And Gibbs is taking every precaution, flying in extra engine specialists, mechanics and fabricators from the team's North Carolina shop for race-day backup.
Still, no one can predict how Stewart will handle the pressure of Sunday's race and beyond, assuming he wins the title.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon thrived in the role, appearing on "Late Night with David Letterman," co-hosting "Regis and Kelly" with Kelly Ripa; visiting New York City firefighters after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; and granting hundreds of interviews with boundless good humor.
"I enjoyed the notoriety that came with it," Gordon said. "And I enjoyed the TV and the media and the fans. Now, all of that stuff wore me out, too. It definitely drained me and kind of burned me out a little bit. But that's just the way I wanted to do it."
But Gordon has told Stewart that it's his prerogative to handle the championship anyway he chooses.
"I told Tony, 'What makes a great champion is what he does sitting in that seat. That's what makes him a great champion -- not what he does outside the seat,' " Gordon said. "A great champion, to me, is somebody who knows how to drive a racecar, works well with the team and wins races. There are some guys who want to be high profile; there are some who want to be low key. Everybody does it different."
But Stewart, despite his disdain for the spotlight, seems to be a magnet for it.
NASCAR officials mobilized Saturday afternoon amid reports that Stewart had once again elbowed a photographer after the final practice -- a transgression that, if true, could have cost him the title. Already on probation, he likely would have been suspended from Sunday's race for another outburst.
Stewart and Gibbs were summoned to a meeting with NASCAR President Mike Helton and two of his top assistants, at which the photographer gave his version of the incident. Stewart gave his account of what happened and apologized to the photographer. The meeting ended with the two shaking hands, and Stewart was dismissed without penalty, according to Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications.
Stewart was alternately frank, cocky and petulant during Saturday's final news conference, wrapping up his remarks by noting that it would be 24 hours before he would have to deal with the media again. "There's some comfort in that alone," he smirked.
Stewart isn't the first volatile athlete that Gibbs has dealt with. Among former Redskins, the coach recalled, Gary Clark came closest to Stewart's persona.
"Gary was one of the most intense competitors on Sunday," Gibbs said. "He was very emotional, yelling and screaming on the sidelines, and a couple times called me names, and I had to get after him."
Gibbs concedes that Stewart has also "stepped over the line" on occasion.
The most serious incident occurred in August at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Stewart shoved a photographer -- running afoul not only of NASCAR and Gibbs, but his sponsor Home Depot, which bankrolls his race team. A series of high-level meetings ensued about how to discipline the driver. The upshot included a $50,000 fine from Home Depot; a $10,000 fine from NASCAR; probation for the rest of the season; sessions with Jack Llewellyn, the sports psychologist who has dealt with troubled baseball pitchers; and a formal apology to the photographer.
In Dutton's view, Stewart's apology was genuine.
"There is no one more repentant than him," Dutton said. "I guarantee you, no drunk coming off a hangover after a drunk-driving accident ever felt worse when the cold, gray light of dawn hits. Of course, that doesn't prevent it from happening again."
Said Stewart: "I'm not an ambassador for anything. I'm a simple kid from a small town in Indiana. All I've done for the last 23 years is drive racecars."