Tony Stewart Could Very Well Be NASCAR's Driver of the Decade

Sal Sigala Jr.Senior Analyst IJanuary 3, 2010

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 21:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet, stands in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 21, 2009 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The 2009 season, as well as another decade of NASCAR racing, is ready for the history books.

The champions of the sport have already been crowned, along with all the postseason awards that NASCAR has already handed out.

When you look back to this past season alone, there were many memorable moments, as well as exciting times that we as fans could easily confirm as the most defining moments of the season.

Or, we could stretch it a by a few years and insert the word decade in its place, and really get a broader view of the impact that our drivers really had.

Even then, no matter which way we have chosen to view them, we followed our favorite drivers through thick and thin, sharing in their agonizing times when defeat was cumbersome, along with those victories that almost magically put their whole careers into perspective.

As is customary with the end of any decade, there is always one driver who has stood above the rest, while personifying what NASCAR racing was really about throughout the decade.

Who this driver might be is anybody’s guess; we all have our favorites, and since NASCAR has no set criteria for choosing this driver, each one of us has our own agenda as to who fills the bill.

Within the next few weeks, there will be story after story written with each fan's view on why they decided to choose a certain driver, along with the reasons why that specific driver was chosen.

Anthony Wayne Stewart had just come into the series as a full-time Cup driver during the 1999 season. Stewart would walk away with Rookie of the Year honors, winning three races and finishing fourth in points behind his teammate Bobby Labonte, who finished second.

The resume that Stewart brought over from the IRL was enough to convince Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, to give the open-wheel star a chance at racing in a series that was a lot different than what he was used to.

Stewart made the most of the opportunity, as he quickly became adapted to the confines of driving a racecar that was double the weight of the cars that he grew up racing—along with having to learn that NASCAR drivers were not afraid to trade paint on any given race weekend.

Stewart entered and left the 2000 season adding another six wins, which included back-to-back wins at Dover and Michigan, and than again at Dover and Martinsville later in the season.

Controversy would also begin to follow this brash young driver, when he and Jeff Gordon tangled and crashed during a race at Watkins Glen.

Stewart yelled obscenity after obscenity towards Gordon in the garage area; in the end, it was Gordon telling Stewart that he would "put him in the wall" the next time Stewart came near him.

Stewart, who was still seeking his first Indianapolis 500 win, would attempt to race in both the 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day, but would fall short while finishing ninth at Indy and fourth at Charlotte.

In 2001, Stewart would begin the season with one of the worst wrecks that he has ever experienced during his 11-year tenure in the Cup Series. Stewart was coming out of turn No. 2 when Ward Burton got pushed around by Robby Gordon. Burton then ran into the back of Stewart, who went airborne.

Stewart would eventually end up second in points behind Gordon, who won his fourth championship.

Controversy seemed to follow him around, and once again with Gordon, this time at Bristol. Stewart also got into a confrontation with a NASCAR official because he refused to wear a NASCAR-mandated head and neck restraint, and kicked a tape recorder out of the hands of a reporter who was at Daytona covering the same race.

His fines and probation periods resulting from these incidents have earned Stewart a reputation of having a hot temper, and he became NASCAR's "bad boy."

Stewart would pick up his first road course win at Watkins Glen, along with wins at Bristol and Richmond.

Daytona had Stewart's number, though; once again, he would fall victim to the 2.5 mile oval. This time he would only complete two laps before leaving the race with a blown engine to start off the 2002 season.

It would only take Stewart three victories to win his first Winston Cup championship, and he did it on the strength of a late-season charge which saw him picking up one victory, seven top-five, and 11 top-10 finishes during the final 18 races of the season.

During the next two seasons, Stewart would add another four victories to his win column, as he continued to show the NASCAR world that making the transition from open wheel could very well be done.

2005 was by far Stewart’s best season, as he finally got to kiss the bricks with his first Indianapolis victory after the Allstate 400.

The season would end with five victories, and once again he would go back-to-back with wins at Sonoma and Daytona, and later in the season at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen.

Not only did his wins come later in the season, as this was beginning to become his trademark, but he also swept both the road course wins, which hadn’t been done since Jeff Gordon last swept in 1999, which happened to be Stewart's rookie year in the series.

This was also the second season of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup championship, along with Nextel, who took over as the series sponsor from Winston after the 2003 season.

Stewart would come into the chase as the top seed, and to this day is still the only driver to lead the point standings before the Chase and win the championship.

Stewart is also the only active driver who could win championships under all three of the series title names.

His championship in 2002 was under the Winston cup name; 2005 was under the Nextel name; today, the series' title sponsor is Sprint.

During the next three seasons, Stewart would continue to add to his win total, picking up another nine victories. More importantly, he would add another Brickyard 400 win, continuing to pave the way for any future open-wheel stars who thought that making the transition would almost be impossible.

A driver of the decade should be not only a proven winner, but also a driver who has made contributions to the NASCAR series in various capacities.

Stewart has never been afraid of a little controversy, with his list ranging from letting Goodyear know where he stood when tires were a big issue, all the way to voicing his opinion to the heads of the sport on different issues that have arisen throughout the decade.

How many drivers are willing to speak their true opinions while going as far as to say that the sport was beginning to take on the persona of the WWE?

Stewart’s accomplishments have more than spoken for themselves, and so far he has had a very successful career, even though his counterparts from the IRL haven’t.

When you think of how much of an impact he has had on NASCAR, even Danica Patrick knew who to seek advice from when she decided she wanted to give NASCAR a try.

Stewart has 37 victories to date, with 34 of them coming in this decade alone.

Stewart ended the decade in grand fashion when he left the confines of Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 years to become a Sprint Cup team owner; this can easily go down as one of his biggest accomplishments to date.

After leading the points standings for the majority of the regular season, Stewart would make the Chase and finish sixth, winning four races to go along with his 15 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes.

Stewart may not have been what NASCAR could call their poster boy, or the goody two shoes driver that some of the fans have taken a liking to.

But what Stewart has brought to the sport is a genuine winning attitude, along with a desire to not only better himself, but also the sport, with his take-no-prisoners style of racing.

Just how far this Indiana native's dreams will take him is anybody's guess, but one thing is for sure: he has taken control of his own destiny while proving that dreams can come true.


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