Tony Stewart is often dismissed as the 'everyman' driver, the kind of racer whose day is gone in this era of lean, mean, ultra-dedicated professional competitors. But Sunday at Homestead-Miami he showed a whole new level to his ability and to his determination to win: nothing and no one was going to get in the way of his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. And no one could.
"I've been racing 31 years, I can't even remember some of the races I've won," he said. "But I would have to say that under the circumstances, I've got to believe that this is definitely one of the greatest races of my life."
That view was endorsed by Stewart's personal racing hero: "We were doing one of the ESPN interviews, they had a surprise phone call for us on the line, and it was AJ Foyt. To hear him say that that was the best race he's ever seen me run, brings a tear to your eye. I mean, not many people can have their lifelong hero say that and hear you say that.
"For once he didn't tell me I did anything wrong. I'm like, I don't know how I'm going to top this now. My life is complete. If I get hit on a golf cart now, I'm good to go because AJ said I did everything perfect for once! It was an honour. That was probably one of the coolest phone calls I've ever had in my life"
It had indeed been an extraordinary, almost out-of-body performance from Stewart for the full three and a half hours. "But as much as I would love to beat my chest and say that I've been just doing something supernatural - I mean, I've had cars that have given me that confidence to do that," he continued. "To go four wide on the front stretch like that and to have the confidence that when you get to turn one, that you can make the corner still, I mean, that's a good handling race car that gives you that."
The day had very nearly come to a disastrous premature end when Stewart's front grille was damaged on lap 4 by debris from Kurt Busch's car. After multiple pit stops for running repairs, it left Stewart dumped at the back on two occasions, and it seemed like he was never through with having to pass car after car as the afternoon wore on.
"I feel like I passed half the State of Florida!," he quipped. "118 cars is a lot of cars to pass in one race. I don't care what series you're in or where you're at. To do it under the circumstances and the pressure that we had today, I'm very, very proud of that."
But the key moment came as the race reached lap 200 and vital decisions needed to be made about pit strategy. Everyone else came in - but Stewart was left out, with crew chief Darian Grubb telling him to conserve fuel.
"When he said save fuel but run his pace, I'm like - I'm running hard to run his pace ... I can't run that pace and save fuel. So it's like, you've got to tell me which one is more important right now!" After opting to stay out, Stewart admitted that "It's really, really hard to watch guys just come barreling past you and to stay disciplined enough to just stick to the plan.