AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) – As he raced toward a NASCAR title in the fall of 2002, a sarcastic and defensive Tony Stewart clearly did not enjoy being in the spotlight.

When the series reached Phoenix, Stewart was leading Mark Martin by 89 points with two races remaining and appeared to be a shoo-in to win the title. But the obviously uptight Stewart viewed every question from reporters as a challenge, and nearly every answer was issued with a snarl.

Stewart went on to beat Martin for the title by 38 points, but it was a subdued victory.

“That was probably one of the worst personal years of my life – even though it was one of the gratifying professional years of my life, as far as winning the championship,” Stewart said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.

What a difference three years can make.

Heading into today’s Checker Auto Parts 500, the “new” Tony Stewart owns a much more vulnerable 38-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and is 77 points in front of third-place Carl Edwards with two races to go in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.

This time, though, the driver once known as Terrible Tony for his tantrums and outbursts against other drivers, members of the media, fans and even members of his own Joe Gibbs Racing team, is long gone. This Stewart is more likely to answer tough questions with a smile or a joke.

The difference could be attributed to the maturity of a 34-year-old with a championship already in his pocket, or to the fact that Stewart moved back to his familiar and comfortable Columbus, Ind., home earlier this year, getting away from a lot of the daily stress of NASCAR’s North Carolina hub in Charlotte.

Whatever did it, though, Stewart is, outwardly at least, a different person.

“It will mean 10 times more if we can do it this year with the way the year has gone,” Stewart said. “I think the entire team will enjoy it more with the way that it’s gone this year.”

No driver leading with two races to go has failed to win the title since 1992, so Stewart would appear to be in great shape. But a bad day Sunday could change everything, especially with Greg Biffle, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth also still bunched within 135 points of the leader.

Johnson made a charge last year in the inaugural 10-race Chase, winning four of the last six races and coming up eight points short of champion Kurt Busch in the closest finish in the history of NASCAR’s top stock car series.

Johnson knows how hard it is to make up ground in such a short time. He was fourth, 48 points behind Busch with two races to go a year ago.

“It’s go time,” Johnson said. “We gained a couple of points last week on the No. 20 (Stewart). We’ve got to finish ahead of them. We’ve just got to go out there and race as hard as we can for the next two weeks.

“And, remember, the 99 (Edwards) is out there. He’s coming on strong.”

Edwards, a phenomenon in his first full season in Cup, has won two straight races, and the 26-year-old racer is showing no signs of nerves.

“Honestly, I feel like if we do our jobs correctly, we can win this race this weekend,” said Edwards.

, who finished seventh on the 1-mile Phoenix oval last spring despite being slowed by a flat tire.

“If we can just repeat our performance that we had in the spring and not get a flat tire, I think we’ll be all right. If that happens and then we can do it again (next week) at Homestead, we can be fighting for this championship.”

Stewart is aware that he’s driving with a target on the back of his Chevrolet right now, but the driver who has finished ninth or better in 18 of his last 20 starts remains confident and, more important, cool.

“We’re not watching where everybody else is,” Stewart said. “There are so many guys that are still mathematically in it that there’s no point in even worrying about it.

“With so many people in the hunt right now, the best thing for us to do is just sit there and do what got us here in the first place. Everybody else has to make something happen.”

AP-ES-11-12-05 1522EST

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