Tony Stewart has his swagger back
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Tony Stewart was reminded by his crew chief, his spotter and several members of his crew before Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway "not to be nice."
It's difficult to think of the driver who often snarls at media, Goodyear and others he has issues with as nice -- he admitted it sounded "odd" himself -- but the message apparently sank in.
So Stewart threw down the gauntlet.
He slapped the face with a glove.
He made his choice of weapon and fired away.
"He better be worried, that's all I've got to say," Stewart delivered to points leader Carl Edwards after collecting his third win of the Chase. "He isn't going to have an easy three weeks."
On a day when testosterone ran out of control on the track with 18 cautions -- seemingly half of them brought out by Brian Vickers -- it should have come as no surprise that it spilled over into Victory Lane.
"It's no disrespect to him," Stewart said of Edwards on the telecast. "He's a great competitor and a great guy. But we've had one of those up-and-down years, and we're having a run in this Chase now where we're hungry, we're hungry for this.
"We've been nice all year to a lot of guys. We're cashing tickets in these next three weeks."
Edwards wasn't surprised by the win or Stewart's comments. He and several other drivers warned on Friday that Stewart was a driver to keep an eye on even though he was in fourth place, 19 points out.
"Yeah, he's wound up," the Roush Fenway Racing driver said after turning a disastrous day -- including a lug nut issue, struggling in the mid-20s a lap down and almost a black flag from NASCAR -- into a ninth-place finish that gave him an eight-point lead over Stewart.
"He was in Victory Lane. He was feeling good. Tony is going to be tough."
But, Edwards reminded, "They're going to have to beat us."
Responded Stewart after learning of Edwards' remarks, "I don't care what he says. We're going after him for three weeks."
But if Edwards keeps turning days like Sunday into top-10s it will be tough for Stewart or anybody to catch him. Despite three wins in the Chase, the two-time champion still trails against a driver who hasn't won during the first seven playoff races, which brings up the question of whether wins should count for more.
That's a debate for another day.
There's no debating Stewart is a threat to win it all even though he said before the Chase he had no chance and would call himself a "bumbling idiot" if he did become the heir to the throne that Jimmie Johnson has owned the past five years.
Johnson, by the way, may be out of the championship hunt 43 points back. But he's not going away quietly, nearly winning for the eighth time at this half-mile track before Stewart pulled off a surprisingly easy pass for the lead on the outside on the final restart.
"It's just a matter of keeping him pinned down there [low on the track] where I had flexibility to move around on the racetrack," Stewart said.
The question is whether Stewart can keep the pressure on Edwards over the final three weeks at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami to be a factor. His statistics at those tracks say he can, but Edwards is equally good at those tracks.
And as happy as Stewart was to win at Martinsville, he would have been a lot happier had Edwards finished where it appeared he would all day. This was reminiscent of the Kansas race where Edwards came out of nowhere to finish fifth.
"It's unreal," Edwards said. "We were so bad during those middle 200 laps. We talked about this beforehand: 'If we come out of here with a top 10 and the points lead it's like a win.'"
He's a great competitor and a great guy. But we've had one of those up-and-down years, and we're having a run in this Chase now where we're hungry, we're hungry for this.” -- Tony Stewart on Chase leader
Stewart couldn't settle for a top-10. He needed to make something big happen at a track where he has finished 34th, 24th and 26th in his previous three races.
He needed to hit a home run.
He hit several, the pass on Johnson being the walk-off swing that won the race. But perhaps a bigger shot came after he restarted 23rd with about 81 laps remaining after pitting to fix a tire he incorrectly thought was going down while battling Kevin Harvick for the lead.
Stewart's run back to the front was so fast that it shocked third-place Jeff Gordon.
"I'm still trying to figure out where he came from," he said.
This Chase has been that way for Stewart. He came out of nowhere, starting in ninth place, 12 points behind Harvick. He erased that with consecutive wins at Chicago and New Hampshire, lost it with a 25th at Dover and 15th at Kansas, then steadily worked his way back.
His confidence now is at an all-time high. Unlike Edwards, who has yet to win a Cup title, Stewart understands what it takes to win it all. He doesn't have the pressure of going for a first championship that often leads to mistakes, as we saw with Denny Hamlin down the stretch a year ago.
He really has nothing to lose.
And he's loose, as we saw repeatedly the way he joked with reporters in the postrace news conference after being reminded of his "idiot" comment.
"It's awesome we have that opportunity to get three [wins] in the Chase like this," Stewart said. "It's an awesome feeling sitting here and knowing we have three tracks coming up that have been good for us.
"I'm excited. It's a great feeling."
Not everybody was feeling so great after this wreck-fest in which retaliation was the order of the day. It got so out of hand, particularly with Vickers and Matt Kenseth at the end, that it had crew chiefs warning their drivers to stay away from certain cars.
It probably cost Kenseth a shot at the title. He went from 14 points down to 36 with a 31st-place finish that easily could have been a top-5.
The lack of control was upsetting to many, including Stewart, who suggested NASCAR should allow tracks to bring in a portable boxing ring and put it on the start-finish line after the race "and give the fans the real show they paid for."
Intentionally destroying cars isn't what crew chief Darian Grubb and others meant when they told Stewart not to be nice. They just wanted their driver to race with the attitude and vengeance that made him a champion in the past.
Stewart did, and Edwards really should be worried. He's being chased by one of the best in the business now, the only driver who has won a title under NASCAR's old and new points systems.
Stewart wants to add a third piece of hardware to his trophy case and he'll do just about anything short of cheating or wrecking somebody to get it.
That's not adrenalin or testosterone speaking.
"My adrenalin has worn off," Stewart said with a straight face, "and I still mean he better not sleep too [soundly] the next three weeks."
In other words, no more Mr. Nice Guy.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.