Champ Stewart sheds his bad-boy image

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Nextel Cup champion is showing a milder side.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With a little luck and a whole lot less controversy, Tony Stewart drove to his second NASCAR championship. In doing so, he traded in his reputation as a temperamental brat for the distinction of being one of the greatest drivers of his time.

Stewart flirted with that potential for years, always capable of showing off his talent both on the race track and in any kind of car. But his tendency to snap over the silliest things had turned him into his own worst enemy and threatened to derail his career over and over again.

Then something changed in Stewart earlier this year. His boss, Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, ordered him into a powwow with his team, forcing Stewart to sit still and listen as his crew explained to him just how miserable it was to work with him.

"Sometimes bad things have to happen for good things to come out of it," Stewart said. "All of the guys sat down and we got to air everything out. It was one of the most stressful meetings I've ever been in because when I went into it I didn't know what it was going to be. I didn't even know if I would have a job after it was over."

Stewart kept his job and emerged a kinder, gentler man.

It translated into a dominating season of five wins and a second championship, making Stewart just the 14th driver in Nextel Cup history to win multiple titles. Now that he's seemingly grown up, the only question is just how many crowns can Stewart reign in?

"I think he's got a lot of winning left in him," said A.J. Foyt, Stewart's childhood hero. "He can win as many championships as he wants because he's that good."

Hot start, winning finish

Greg Biffle began the season as the hottest driver, scoring five quick victories and emerging as a championship contender. But he tailed off a bit through the middle of the arduous 36-race schedule and never challenged Stewart for the win. Still, Biffle closed out the year on top by winning Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway for a series-best six wins. It also pushed him into second place in the final standings.

Wallace, Rudd depart

Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd made the final full-time rides of their NASCAR careers on Sunday. Wallace, who is retiring from racing and moving into a car owner role, finished 13th. Rudd wasn't nearly as strong, struggling to a 37th-place finish. But Rudd might not be done for good -- he's left open the possibility of racing part-time in the future.

Careful what you wish for

Jimmie Johnson desperately wanted to avoid finishing second in the championship standings for a third consecutive season. He got his wish when he blew a tire midway through Sunday's race to end any chance of winning the title. But it was hardly what he had in mind: The ruined rubber sent Johnson plummeting in the final standings to a frustrating fifth-place.

CONSOLATION PRIZE: Jeff Gordon failed to make the Chase for the championship, but salvaged his season Sunday by locking up the 11th spot in the final standings. It earned Gordon at least a $1 million payout and trip to next month's awards ceremony in New York. Gordon wasn't thrilled with 11th, focusing instead on his improved performance down the stretch did.

"I'm thrilled the way we finished the season and gained some momentum," he said. "All that matters to me is performing and running up front. We tried to make our team better. I think we did."

asap columnist Jenna Fryer is AP's motorsports writer.

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