Change of Tony: Mellowed Stewart Celebrates Victory at Daytona

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IJuly 5, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 04:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Burger King Chevrolet celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 51st Annual Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 4, 2009 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

In the past, Tony Stewart, the stubbled 38-year-old Rushville, Ind., native, would've fully enjoyed his sweet victory at "The World Center of Racing," basking in the confetti and barrage of beverages from crew members in the celebration.

After all, he won his third career Coke Zero 400, a race which has traditionally kicked-off his summer streak of victories in the past.

The old Smoke would've told the throng of reporters that he won the race fair and square, that it was bad racing luck for his former teammate Kyle Busch, and that it's part of plate racing.

Instead, it was a somber and matured Stewart, a man who was not satisfied with the way he went on to win the race—quite the change for the supposed "bad boy" of NASCAR.

"That's not the way I wanted to do it," said Stewart per AP Sports Writer Jenna Fryer's post-race article. "I just don't like it to end that way. You know, you work hard to get to this level, and you don't want to see races decided by guys wrecking coming to the finish line."

Stewart, who dominated the race by leading 86 of 160 laps, appeared to be on his way to a rather easy victory at Daytona International Speedway.

As he led a five car pack to the stripe for the white flag, Stewart was passed by Busch to the stripe and fell back to second position on the last lap.

It appeared as if Shrub was on his way to a repeat of his triumph of a year ago, when both drivers ended up racing in the same inch of real estate toward the tri-oval for the checkers.

Busch's green No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry was putting some blocks on Stewart's white and blue No. 14 Burger King Chevrolet Impala SS, clearly showing his former teammate no slack (and rightfully so) for a passing opportunity.

Defensive moves intended, Busch's car broke loose from contact with Stewart's Chevy, sending the 24-year-old Vegas native into the outside retaining wall in the tri-oval, essentially becoming a pinball for his competitors to hit.

While Stewart's ride blazed to the line for his second victory of the season, Busch made the highlight reels for all the wrong reasons.

Spinning and unable to regain control, Busch would be rear-ended heavily by the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge Charger of Kasey Kahne, who plowed right into the man who was seemingly en-route to a fourth win in 2009.

Understandably, Smoke wasn't exactly in the mood to celebrate all out like he has in wins from the past.

"I went where I had to go, and he went where he had to go," Stewart acknowledged, showing a new side to the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion with class and maturity.

"You're kind of forced into that position. It still doesn't mean you like it."

Also understandable was how Busch, who reportedly suffered some headaches following his last-lap crash, left the race track without comment, with team owner Joe Gibbs telling the media how proud he was of his young driver's efforts.

The 51st Coke Zero 400 was an unusual race, to say the least, as perennial contenders like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mark Martin fell by the wayside via crashes throughout the event.

This left Jimmie Johnson as the last hope for a "true" Hendrick Motorsports victory.

Instead, the 2006 Daytona 500 champ departed the 2.5-mile mammoth speedway with a runner-up finish and a comfortable advantage for a Chase seed in the third spot for the championship standings.

With the front runners eliminated, it gave drivers like Elliott Sadler, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, and Juan Pablo Montoya much needed opportunities to shine.

And shine they did, as each driver placed in the top 10 in the final rundown of the race.

Stewart now leads Gordon by a staggering 180 points, followed by Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards.

Chicagoland Speedway is the next stop for the Sprint Cup gang, as they race their way to Joliet, Ill. for next Saturday night's Lifelock.com 400 (Live, 8 p.m. EDT on TNT).

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