Stewart's new attitude set tone for No. 20 team

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Tony Stewart grinned as he leaned against his orange No. 20 Chevrolet talking about the events of the night in which he won his second Cup title.

That's when the shower came from above, his crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the boys were jumping up and down, hollering as they bathed their driver in a shower of Coca-Cola. A Coke and a smile.

That's what Stewart had on Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And that's been Stewart's attitude all year long, which is why this championship means so much more to him than his first title won here in 2002.

"I'm so happy I could get Zippy this championship and do it the right way for him instead of putting them through the hell that I put this team through in 2002," Stewart said. "Just a nice way to get it done tonight."

This year, more than any other, Stewart has shown more remorse for some of the things that happened in his racing past. He's shown more maturity and he's shown more class. Above all, he's shown more gratitude.

"I put this team through a lot of hell the whole time I've been with them," Stewart said. "But they've never given up on me."

Though that was a consideration at one point.

Stewart already had a gruff reputation before 2002, known as a hot-tempered racer who would retaliate on track after altercations or challenge a fellow racer to fisticuffs at the drop of a dime. Then, in that fateful year that he was both put on probation and touted as the sport's finest, Stewart's image began to take a beating.

He charged at an official and then smacked the tape recorder out of a reporter's hand at Daytona. He punched a photographer at Indianapolis. Through the course of the season, he was placed on probation and was then ordered by his team to attend anger management classes. He remembers being miserable.

And his team remembers the misery, too.

J.D. Gibbs, son of team owner Joe Gibbs and president of Joe Gibbs Racing, remembers reaching the breaking point. Everybody had spoken to Stewart, but to no avail. The sponsors had threatened him; NASCAR had threatened him; the team had threatened him.

Nothing was getting through.

But that's when they remembered what meant the most to Tony. A short-track whiz kid who had adapted to, and succeeded at, every type of racing he had tried -- Stewart had built a reputation for respecting and honoring the guys who work with him. It occurred to Gibbs that Stewart's antics betrayed his better intentions, and it was time that Stewart realized it.

The team organized a meeting with the crew and with Stewart. They sat Stewart down at the table, turned to the crew and opened up a forum: How have Tony's actions affected you?

"Those guys didn't hold back," Gibbs said of the crew. "They did a great job of saying, 'This is not going to work and here's why.'

"It comes down to people. And when he saw what it meant to the guys around him, I think that was a big part of it. They let him know that they were there for him and loved him and supported him, but they needed him to work with them as well. That meant a lot to him. He realized that. They are a family. They've been together since '99. You don't have that very often. He cares about those guys and doesn't want to screw it up."

Stewart said that meeting was when his eyes finally opened.

"I didn't know what the outcome was going to be," he said, reflecting on that night as he spoke to the media after clinching that second title. "I didn't know if I was going to have a job anymore."

That's when Stewart began to make changes in his life. He thought twice before speaking. In fact, he thought twice before agreeing to speak when he had a hunch that he was going to be in one of his moods. More dramatic was his change in residence. Stewart uprooted from the Lake Norman area near Charlotte, N.C., where he was recognized and followed constantly, to his hometown and birthplace of Columbus, Ind.

Stewart now lives in the very home in which he was raised. He takes himself in stride and he has dedicated himself to racing for two things: easing the pain he caused his team in the past and reminding himself constantly why he races.

"I can promise you, I want this championship worse than the rest of the drivers do," Stewart said when he showed up to Miami hoping to claim his second crown. "A lot of them have not won a championship yet, so people are going to ask me how come I want it more. The one we won in 2002 kind of had an asterisk with the team. It was just not a clean year. We had a lot of turmoil and trouble amongst ourselves internally. I created a lot of turmoil with things that happened on and off the track."

All season, that became Stewart's driving motivation. He won the team a title, but he overshadowed that glory with controversy. Now, he wanted to give it a title to enjoy.

When the season started, it didn't look good for Stewart. He got out of the gates solidly at the Daytona 500, finishing seventh, and had a sprinkling of strong runs scattered throughout the first 10 events of the year. But three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 dropped him to 14th in the standings and a feeling of helplessness pervaded the team.

"It wasn't one partiular race, it was our whole season from the start," Stewart said. " … Once we got away from Daytona, we really were just behind until we got to Michigan."

That was race No. 11 and Stewart and Co. managed to bring a hot rod to the track and make the adjustments necessary to stay up front and secure a second-place finish. That was just a teaser for what was to come. Stewart won five of his next seven races and shot from 10th in the standings to first -- a position he would relinquish for only one week the remainder of the season.

That's where Stewart was sitting entering Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He held a narrow 52-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, but knew that his obsession with winning this title -- after a season filled with headlines of victories, charity and maturity -- would give him the edge.

"This is one I want to win for Greg Zipadelli more than the rest of the competition can possibly imagine," Stewart said, two days away from making it happen. "It doesn't mean we're going to win it, but if they're going to win it they're going to have to take it from me."

That determination has always been a Stewart trademark. But the focus he has with that determination is different, now bent on honoring those who stand beside him and work throughout the week to make him fast on Sunday.

That much was clear to anyone who saw him following Sunday's race. Stewart was gracious with fans and the media, but that mile-wide smile only graced Stewart's face when he was hugging and slapping hands with his team.

Even after entering the media center for the ritual champion's press conference, Stewart was thinking about his team.

"Let's get this over with as quick as possible so I can go drink beer with my team," he said, laughing. "That's what I want to do more than anything right now."

And the feeling was mutual. The looks on his teammates' faces said it all. Stewart had dedicated this year to clinching his team the hassle-free championship he robbed it of in '02, and watching him accomplish that left many speechless.

"I couldn't be any prouder of Tony," Zipadelli said. "That's probably the biggest thing -- this kid's been through the ups and downs but he's matured and 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 and we're just proud to be a part of it."

Stewart, sitting and talking in his Coke-drenched driver's uniform, was visibly touched by his team's gratitude. But he was equally unwilling to bogart the credit.

"We were a stronger team this year than we were my entire time at Joe Gibbs Racing," Stewart said.

And there's no secret why. It's because of the kid who has won in just about every type of car he's raced. It's because of the guy whom Mark Martin calls the greatest race car driver of this era. It's because of the guy whom Jeff Gordon says is officially among the elite now that he's got multiple championships.

"This year, he has really become a leader on that team," Gibbs said. "He and Zippy have been together so long and know each other so well. But this year, [Stewart has] stepped up. He's more of a leader with the guys. He encourages the guys. Obviously, this is a very humbling sport. Last year at this time, we were really distraught. We weren't running well. We were struggling and had some in-house issues.

"It's a blessing to see how those guys have worked together and turned it around this year. At the beginning, it wasn't very good either. But for Tony to step up and be a part of that leadership meant a lot to me and to everyone at JGR."

Stewart soaked in the celebration of a championship done right -- awarded for a year in which he finally figured out how to chill out and continue to win.

A Coke and a smile -- true happiness at last.

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.