What started out as a lost season for Tony Stewart wound up as the best time of his life.

Few who saw it will forget a grinning Stewart standing in Victory Lane last Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway trying to conduct an interview while crewmen from his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet team poured bottle after bottle of soda on his head.

But it would have been hard to convince Stewart that day would come when he was mired in a streak of bad luck, mechanical problems and bad decisions that stalked the 2002 NASCAR champion through the first 14 races of the 2005 season.

After finishing 29th at Pocono in June, Stewart was 10th in the standings, 380 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. To that point, Stewart, who started the season with a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500, had more finishes of 15th or worse (eight) than top 10s (six).

Asked the low point of his season, Stewart grimaced and said, “Probably the first how many races were the low point. It really wasn’t one particular race. It was just our whole season, really, from the start, other than Daytona.”

Things turned around the week after that Pocono disappointment, with Stewart finishing second to Greg Biffle at Michigan. Stewart backed that up by breaking through for his first win of the year the following week on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., then added a win the next week on the big oval at Daytona.

He was off and running toward another title.

Stewart went on to get all five of his season victories in a span of seven races and closed out the year with 19 finishes of ninth or better in the final 22 events.

“How do you beat that?” asked Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion and the only other active driver with more than one Cup title. “It was a heckuva streak and they did it because that team had everything together – the right equipment, the right attitude and a great driver.”

It’s well documented that the guy who used to be known as Terrible Tony has somehow morphed into Terrific Tony these days. He jokes with reporters, smiles for photographers and fans, gives tons of money and time to charity – particularly Kyle Petty’s Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill and disabled children – and seems to be really enjoying life.

That certainly wasn’t the case in 2002 when he punched one photographer and shoved another, said rude things to media and fans and was seemingly under a black cloud the entire season, even as he drove away with the championship.

He has called that year “one of the worst personal years of my life.”

His mother, Pam Boas, says the deaths of good friends Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty and mentor and childhood idol Dale Earnhardt during the two previous years put Stewart in a funk of confusion and pain.

“It was a difficult time for him and he didn’t know how to deal with all that pain,” his mother said.

So what changed? Where did this new Tony Stewart come from?

“You know what? He’s 34 years old now,” she said. “It was time to grow up.”

But his mother also credits a move earlier this year back to the family home in Columbus, Ind., for some of the peace Stewart is feeling these days.

“He came home to Indiana,” she said the day before her son wrapped up the championship. “He lives in the house where he was raised. It’s a place where he can find peace and contentment, without a lot of pressure from people wanting something from him.”

Whatever helped him make the transition, there’s little question that this Tony Stewart will enjoy his second title a lot more than the first one.

Stewart insists he’s not smarter or a better driver than he was in 2002. Just more able to go with the flow and deal with the intense pressures of life in NASCAR’s fast lane.

“You know, I feel I’m just a piece of the puzzle,” Stewart said. “I think that we’re just a better team. Our organization has grown and grown stronger.

“The greatest strength of Joe Gibbs has been assembling the right people to do the right jobs. And the great thing with that is that when we were behind early in the season, we didn’t know which area was going to get us caught up.”

He said everybody on the team, including the driver, dug in and tried a little harder.

“We all tried to get that extra half percent or percent that we thought we needed to be where the Roush and Hendrick teams were,” Stewart noted. “I wasn’t driving the car any different the first three or four months of the year than we did the remaining part of the season. So, obviously the team was the biggest part of that championship equation.”

Of course, the team gives Stewart plenty of credit, too.

Crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who somehow held things together during the 2002 season, acting as the intermediary between the incendiary Stewart and the rest of the crew, said the difference is obvious.

“I think that’s a lot to Tony’s maturity in him showing up and relaxing and wanting to be part of the team and actually taking some ownership in it this year,” Zipadelli said. “It obviously makes my job and everybody else’s a little easier and little bit more fun.”

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