Tony Stewart had to contend with racecars crashing in front of him, blown engines spewing oil in his path, his own ill-handling Pontiac and a mounting case of nerves in NASCAR's season-ending Ford 400 today.
Stewart's 18th-place finish was hardly a display of automotive authority. But it was enough to clinch the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup championship despite a valiant effort by challenger Mark Martin, who charged from 34th to fourth yet failed to overtake him.
The achievement added to Stewart's collection of titles and bolstered his reputation, at 31, as one of the best drivers competing today, having won championships in go-karts, midgets, sprint cars, Indy cars and now, 3,400-pound stock cars.
For Stewart it meant, above all, that he'd finally accomplished something behind the wheel that his hero, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt, never did.
"Check the record books," Stewart said. "He may have won Indy and Daytona, but he never won a NASCAR championship. I'm just glad I'm finally one up on the old man."
It was also a victory for car owner Joe Gibbs, who added to his prodigious trophy case in claiming his second Winston Cup title in three seasons. As coach of the Washington Redskins, Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. He has now accomplished something analogous in racing, winning two Winston Cup titles with different drivers: Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Stewart this season.
But Gibbs chalked up his stock-car racing success to the talents of his two drivers, the intelligence of their respective crew chiefs and the healthy chemistry among them.
"If it's your job to lead the thing," Gibbs said, "the most important thing you can do is pick the right people. I've been involved in people sports so, it's picking people."
Asked to compare his achievements in football and racing, Gibbs smiled. "My wife said it best: 'It's like having babies. They're all special, and they're all great,' " Gibbs said. "But I have a lot less to do on this side [racing]."
Kurt Busch won today's 267-lap race, which catapulted him from sixth to third in the season's final standings. Joe Nemechek was second, followed by Jeff Burton and Martin.
Martin ran a bold and smart race, diving three-wide into a thicket of cars at one point to gain a position. But for the fourth time in his career, he finished second in the season's championship. (Martin was runner-up in 1990, 1994 and 1998, as well).
This year, Martin fell 38 points short of the title -- a margin that was small enough to leave him and car owner Jack Roush exceedingly proud of their effort this season. But the margin was also big enough to avert profound bitterness, as well as a potential lawsuit, given that NASCAR officials had docked Martin 25 points two weeks earlier for an "unapproved spring."
Roush Racing's appeal of that penalty was rejected on Saturday by a NASCAR-appointed panel. After the championship was settled with today's race, Roush lambasted NASCAR's adjudication system, saying it had dampened his enthusiasm for winning the sport's title and acknowledging that he might have sued the sanctioning body had Martin lost the championship by fewer than 25 points.
"I would have accepted the advice of counsel since I'm so emotionally involved I couldn't make a good decision on my own," Roush said.
But the question proved moot. Even if NASCAR had reinstated the 25 points, Stewart still would have won the 2002 Winston Cup title by 13 points. And that, Martin admitted, made all the difference.
"I think that was important," Martin said. "I feel like they beat us. They earned it, and I congratulate them."
Roush also congratulated Stewart and his team.
"He is a racer's racer," Roush said of Stewart. "I will celebrate with them."
NASCAR President Mike Helton warned drivers during the pre-race meeting that anyone who tried to interfere with Stewart's and Martin's run at the title would be black-flagged. And they took heed, giving the championship contenders' generous berth in traffic.
The track was unusually slippery on the high side, with the previous night's downpour washing away layers of tire rubber that had helped cars stick to the track. A few drivers ended up spinning into the wall, including Michael Waltrip.
"It's embarrassing to put on a race at a track like that," Waltrip fumed. "It's like racing on an old, dirt country road."
Stewart started sixth, but faded early. His Pontiac wasn't handling the way it should, he complained over the radio, and he fell one lap down not long after the race's mid-point. All Gibbs could do from his vantage point in the pits was pace back and forth while crew chief Greg Zipadelli reassured his driver over the radio.
Meantime, Martin, who started 34th, steadily gained ground.
Stewart got his lap back on the restart after the day's fourth caution flag. It was brought out when a flat tire sent Jimmy Spencer's car into the Turn 4 wall, and the car burst into flames, smacking the concrete where the gas tank sits.
Once Stewart was back on the lead lap, all he had to do was steer clear of trouble and hope his engine didn't fail. To clinch the title, he simply had to finish 22nd or better regardless of what Martin did. So 18th was good enough.
Stewart started celebrating the moment his car crossed the finish line, dropping the window net so he could pump his left fist to the sky, while steering with his right hand.
Teammate Labonte pulled alongside to congratulate him. And scores of mechanics rushed toward Victory Lane.
"He's an awesome race-car driver," said four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. "He wheels 'em as good as anybody I've ever seen."