-- Tony Stewart saved his only juvenile move for last, waiting until the checkered flag fell and the fireworks exploded overhead at Homestead-Miami Speedway before letting his emotions erupt.
With his closest challenger crashing out midway through the Ford 400, Stewart didn't have to do anything spectacular to clinch the 2005 NASCAR championship Sunday. Conservative pit strategy, a measured driving style and a 15th-place finish in stock-car racing's season finale were all he needed. And as race winner Greg Biffle roared to Victory Lane, Stewart spun celebratory doughnuts on the speedway's front stretch in his No. 20 Chevrolet, kicking up plumes of smoke as an expression of his euphoria.
Stewart wasn't simply celebrating the fact that he had just clinched his second NASCAR Nextel Cup championship, becoming only the 14th stock-car racer to win multiple titles. He also was celebrating because, at 34, he had finally won a championship in a dignified manner -- without the controversy, fines, suspensions and ill feeling that marred his 2002 title run.
"I'm so happy that I could get Zippy [crew chief Greg Zipadelli] this championship and do it the right way instead of with the hell that I put this team through in 2002," a champagne-drenched Stewart said after climbing from his racecar. "It was a nice way to get it done."
Stewart's title is the third for team owner Joe Gibbs since he launched his Huntersville, N.C.-based stock-car racing venture, Joe Gibbs Racing, in 1992, giving Gibbs as many NASCAR titles as Super Bowl titles. Gibbs wasn't on hand to celebrate, having stayed in Washington following the Redskins' 16-13 loss to the Oakland Raiders, but he spoke by phone to his elder son, J.D. Gibbs, 36, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, who was at the track.
"Obviously, he had a tough day today; [the Redskins' loss] was discouraging for him," J.D. Gibbs said. "I told him the good news is at least we can break even [financially] this year, so he's excited. He takes great pride in this. This is a family business, and he'll be back here in three years."
Stewart drove a cautious race, giving fellow drivers a wide berth as he circled the 1.5-mile oval, and didn't press to gain unnecessary positions; he wrapped up the championship and the $5 million bonus that comes with it. (With five victories this season, he had $6.8 million in winnings before Sunday's green flag fell.)
But the final laps featured thrilling action, thanks to Biffle and his Roush Racing teammates Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who finished 1-2-3-4, respectively. Martin gave Biffle all he could handle over the last two laps, battling him door handle to door handle for the victory. Biffle eked it out by 0.017 second, and it vaulted him to second in the season's final standings.
When the points were finally tallied, Biffle and Edwards tied for second in the season's final standings -- each 35 points in arrears to Stewart. But Biffle claimed second place because he had won more races (six, to Edwards's four).
"Man, it was close!" said Martin, 46, who had the time of his life battling for the win. "We were just inches short. I guess maybe we needed another lap, or maybe I would have crashed trying."
Edwards couldn't have done more to close the gap on Stewart. He started Sunday's race from the pole and collected the maximum bonus points (10) for leading the most laps. But his fourth-place finish left him third in the standings -- just where he was when the day dawned. Still, Edwards acknowledged it had been a storybook year for a guy who was competing in his first full season in NASCAR's elite ranks. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world and living a dream," Edwards said. "And anybody hoping something comes through, don't give up!"
But the racing gods were cruel to Jimmie Johnson, who had the best shot of overtaking Stewart for the title, trailing him by 52 points.
Johnson ran among the top 10 early, but his Chevrolet suddenly faded around Lap 115 (of 267). He fell from 10th to 28th in a matter of laps as if he had thrown the car in reverse. Crew chief Chad Knaus tried to calm his driver as he complained about the car's handling. "Settle down, settle down," Knaus said over the radio. "We'll get this thing figured out."
Biffle and Jimmy Spencer radioed in that they thought Johnson's right-rear tire was losing air. But instead of pitting under the green, Johnson stayed on the track, hoping for a caution flag. In a matter of laps, Johnson's tire exploded, sending the car into a spin and into the concrete wall. The damage ended his day, leaving Knaus with nothing more to say over the radio than, "Great job. Good season. Go home!"
Johnson's 40th-place finish dropped him to fifth in the standings. In terms of Stewart's concerns, it simplified his challenge. Only Edwards and Biffle could catch him now, and because they were farther back in points, Stewart needed only to finish 20th to clinch the title.
"I couldn't be any prouder of Tony," said Zipadelli, Stewart's long-time crew chief. "We won this championship because of him -- because of his attitude, because of his winning ways, his efforts. He can win in any car out there. We're just proud to be part of it."
Helicopter Crash Kills Pilot
Two helicopters collided at the Homestead-Miami Speedway after the NASCAR championship race, killing one pilot, authorities said.
One helicopter was taking off from the speedway's helipad shortly before 9 p.m. while another was attempting to land, said Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Richard Martin.
"They had either a midair collision or a near-midair collision. One of them did a hard landing right on the helipad. No one on that craft was injured," Martin said.
The other pilot died after being airlifted to a Miami hospital, a spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Police Department said. The pilot's identification was being withheld pending family notification.
Todd Shook, 46, of Sarasota, said he saw the blades of one helicopter clip the body of the second helicopter as he was walking to his RV parked outside the speedway.
One helicopter landed lopsided on the speedway's helipad, and the other crashed into an RV parked nearby, he said.
"It just hit real hard, and then I saw the windshield all broken out," Shook said.
It was not immediately clear if the RV was occupied at the time of the crash.
-- Associated Press