It wasn't the $50,000 fine levied by his sponsor, Home Depot, for smacking a photographer in a fit of pique after a disappointing finish at Indianapolis. It wasn't the multiple probations ordered by NASCAR for his on- and off-track scuffles with fellow racers. And it wasn't the enmity of reporters after he knocked a tape recorder out of a journalist's hands in yet another post-race meltdown.
The transforming event in the slow and painful maturation of Tony Stewart came when he was locked in a room with his teammates -- the guys who turn wrenches, build motors and bang out the dents in his No. 20 Chevrolet -- and forced to listen as they enumerated the headaches his outbursts were causing them.
Call it a stock-car racing intervention, engineered by car owner Joe Gibbs.
Stewart, of course, credits absolutely no one and nothing with his evolution from stock-car racing's biggest pain in the bumper to productive team member. In 72 hours he'll strap in for NASCAR's season-ending Ford 400 as the favorite to clinch his second NASCAR championship. As reporters gather 'round, jabbing tape recorders and microphones in his unshaven face, Stewart doesn't seem to mind talking about tire management, the nuances of Homestead-Miami Speedway and the tradeoff between racing to win versus racing not to lose. But enough of this probing and prodding and dissecting of his notoriously troubled psyche.
"Do we have any intelligent questions out there?" Stewart snapped. "We went over this topic so much this year, I don't know what else we could possibly talk about!"
At 34, Stewart most likely will never be charming. He may never be particularly likable, either. But there's no question that he has come a long way from the petulant brat of a few years ago, when he was without peer in racing hard and blaming everyone in sight when things didn't go his way.
Drivers may get all the glory in NASCAR, but it is a team sport. And it's no place for a prima donna, particularly when a driver can't get to Victory Lane without the crew members who change four tires in 13 seconds on race day or without the engineers and mechanics who devote 80-hour weeks to rebuilding the engines and bodies he tears up on Sundays.
Stewart doesn't mind saying he has never given a flip whether journalists liked him. But when confronted with the fact that his own team was weary of his act, NASCAR's most self-absorbed racer took a well-timed timeout to reflect.
"Those guys didn't hold back," said J.D. Gibbs, 36, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, recounting the closed-door session at the end of the 2004 season. "They did a great job of saying, 'This is not going to work, and here's why.' They let him know that they were for him and loved him and supported him, but they needed him to work with them, as well."
Fortunately for Stewart, his epiphany dawned before the front office at Joe Gibbs Racing gave up. That's not to say there wasn't debate over whether Stewart's boorish behavior overshadowed his exceptional talent behind the wheel.
"We looked back to his heart," J.D. Gibbs said. "Where was his heart? Where did he want to be? Is this something he wanted to do? With my dad, we have a little bit different perspective on athletes and issues. In the NFL, it's a knock-down drag-out. There is a lot of stuff you can do [in the NFL] that over here [in NASCAR] no one would stand for."
An anger-management specialist was brought in. Expectations were spelled out. And there were untold chats with long-time crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who knew better than anyone the depth of Stewart's drive to win, his frustration over losing, his compulsion for lashing out afterward and the remorse that typically followed.
After last winter's intervention, Stewart seemed to finally grasp that not every emotion he felt had to be expressed. Instead of dragging the team down with his tirades, he tried lifting their spirits when things when wrong.
"He kind of sets the tone for those guys, where in the past he would get frustrated, and it was readily apparent," J.D. Gibbs said. "He still gets just as frustrated and upset, but he does a good job with the guys. You'll hear him during a race, pumping them up, keeping [Zipadelli] encouraged. He realized those guys sacrifice their lives to give him good race cars."
Stewart also grew to realize that he didn't have to win every race. The smartest way to contend for a second championship was to finish races, not necessarily win them, and collect as many points as possible. And he has been a model of consistency in the second half of the 2002 season, building a 52-point lead over Jimmie Johnson entering Sunday's race with top-10 finishes in 19 of the last 21 races.
Stewart has been a model of maturity, too -- so much so that NASCAR officials aren't flinching at the prospect of having him represent the sport as its champion.
"What many people see Tony as today is the predominant personality of what many people saw him as before, but it was over-shadowed by the personality that got all the headlines, and he admits that himself," NASCAR President Mike Helton said. "I think the personality that we're all enjoying today was the one that kept everybody working on Tony because they knew what he could be. And we're all better off because of that today."