Tony Stewart is one of NASCAR's living legends, a well-liked driver with two Cup championships and 41 race victories to his name.
Until recent weeks, the 2011 season hadn't gone as planned, but, after running poorly for most of the summer and struggling just to make the Chase, Stewart surprised everyone (including himself) by winning the first two races of the Chase.
Following his victories at Chicagoland and Loudon, Stewart was leading the points and looking like a legitimate contender for his first championship since 2005—the last year anyone not named Jimmie Johnson earned NASCAR's biggest prize. Although he struggled at Dover en route to a 25th-place finish, Smoke is still third in the points and very much a contender for the title.
What would a third NASCAR championship mean to Stewart's legacy?
Most importantly, a third championship would secure Stewart's place among the elite NASCAR drivers of all time, something his win total will never do.
15 drivers have won at least two NASCAR Cup championships, and being one of the 15 best in a sport is a significant achievement. However, two championships doesn't guarantee lasting fame: Do you really think of drivers such as Terry Labonte and Tim Flock as among the greatest ever?
With another title, Stewart would move up the NASCAR legends totem pole significantly. A third crown would move him into a tie with Lee Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson for career championships. Only Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have won more. Other than Gordon and Johnson (who are still active), all of those drivers have been elected to NASCAR's Hall of Fame in the first three classes.
Putting his name alongside such championship-winning legends of the sport would do more for Stewart's legacy than anything else he could accomplish on the track.
While it's possible that the 40-year-old former open wheel driver could break into the top 10 on NASCAR's all-time win list, the prestige of Stewart's win total will never match what additional championships would add to his legacy.
Stewart's 41 wins are good for 16th-highest ever, but in order to become one of NASCAR's top 10 winners, Smoke would need to win 13 more times. Although he might get there, he is starting to get up there in age and the wins aren't coming quite as steadily as they used to. After winning 32 times in his first nine seasons, averaging 3.6 victories per season, Stewart only has nine wins since the beginning of 2008—an average of just 2.2 per year.
Wins are impressive, but championships are the true measure of a driver's greatness. Whether or not Stewart breaks into the top 10 on NASCAR's all-time win list, a third title would be enough to solidify his place among NASCAR's greatest ever.
In addition, winning a championship as an owner/driver would be a special accomplishment. No owner/driver has won the title since Alan Kulwicki drove his underfunded single-car team to an improbable title in 1992.
Stewart's situation is a little different in that Stewart-Haas Racing is a two-car team and will likely expand to four cars over the next couple of seasons, but the extra responsibilities of being a team owner still present major challenges. For Stewart to win a title as an owner/driver would be a remarkable achievement.
Will Stewart be able to rebound from his rough day at Dover and win the 2011 championship? It will be an uphill battle, but it's certainly possible.
Stewart is now tied for third in the standings—nine points behind co-leaders Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick. It will take all of his skill, as well as some luck, for him to emerge on top at the end of the year, but if he succeeds, it will be a great story and cement his legacy as one of NASCAR's all-time greats.