By Tod Palmer / The Kansas City Star, Mo. | Saturday, April 21, 2012 | http://www.bostonherald.com | Auto Racing
Photo by Brian Czobat/Autostock
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Love him or hate him -- and he’s one of those drivers whose brash style provides for precious little middle ground -- Tony Stewart is back on top.
Some people are drawn to his take-no-prisoners racing style and cocky attitude, while others despise Stewart for the same reasons.
Regardless, a case can be made that Stewart, who cut his teeth running midgets on dirt tracks, is one of the top drivers in NASCAR history. His two victories this season moved him into a tie for 14th all-time with 46 career Sprint Cup wins.
And, after claiming title No. 3 last season, only Richard Petty (seven), Dale Earnhardt (seven), Jimmie Johnson (five) and Jeff Gordon (four) own more NASCAR Sprint Cup championships than Stewart, who also won titles in 2002 and 2005.
Stewart, who has won roughly one of every 10 starts in his career, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s STP 400. He previously won at Kansas Speedway in 2006 and 2009.
But perhaps Stewart’s greatest appeal is that he simply loves racing.
Stewart, who has finished outside the top 10 only once since joining NASCAR’s top circuit in 1999, made the difficult transition to driver/owner when he left Joe Gibbs Racing and started his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing, before the 2009 season.
Obviously, he’s managed to put together a successful team in short order.
"Corporation-wise, we’re probably not as corporate as some of the other teams are, but we’re a die-hard group of racers, that’s for sure," Stewart said. "And if that’s what helps produce the results, we’ll take it."
In fact, Stewart is skipping town tonight to run in the Ice Breaker Challenge at Eagle Raceway, a 1/3-mile dirt oval in Lincoln, Neb.
"I’m pretty excited about getting there and getting a chance to run my sprint car again," Stewart said. "I’ve got 40 races on my schedule this year, so I’ve got more sprint-car races than I do stock-car races. I’m pretty happy about that."
The only thing that makes Stewart and his crew happier than racing is winning. And the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet is doing plenty of that, picking up wins at Las Vegas and Fontana (in addition to a Gatorade Duel) already this season.
"These guys did such an awesome job last year in the Chase, and then it seems like as soon as the Chase was over -- literally Monday morning -- they were back at it, wanting to figure out what we could do to get back to another one," Stewart said.
So, the man who won bookend titles around Johnson’s record-setting run of five in a row, sits solidly positioned for another crack at the NASCAR crown.
Stewart, who has finished in the top 10 269 times in 471 career Sprint Cup starts, believes the team found its groove during the last dozen races last season and has brought that momentum into a new season.
"I’d like to think so," Stewart said. "I think our whole organization has. For Ryan (Newman) and I to both have wins this year is a start to the year that we’d never had in our organization."
"I`m too lazy to work my real job. I love what I do." Tony Stewart