In the rear view: 20 years since Smoke’s first title

On this day 20 years ago, the 2002 Ford 400 was run at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

What is the significance of that race?

NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Tony Stewart won his first NASCAR Cup Series championship that day.

Upon hearing how much time had passed, Stewart let out a laugh, in disbelief.

“Old. That’s what it does. It makes you feel old,” Stewart told SPEED SPORT. “I didn’t even think about it, how long ago it was. This is the first instinctive reaction when someone says, “Oh, yeah, it’s been 20 years since your first Cup.” Age is how you feel.”

But the day that ended in celebration of a championship doesn’t tell the full story of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 team that season.

Beneath the surface, it was a year of turmoil, hardship, and perseverance.

According to Stewart, the championship race really began at the 2001 awards ceremony in December. Stewart won three races this season and was runner-up to Jeff Gordon in the standings.

“I know we finished strong. I remember being at the banquet at the end of 2001 and sitting there as the last person to go before the champ and he was watching Jeff give his speech, and how incredible it was,” Stewart said. Like me to participate in a NASCAR race. To run second to him in points, I thought was really cool.

“We knew we had the pace, we knew we were performing, we knew it wasn’t like we finished second in the championship that year, we knew we were contenders. It was a good feeling knowing that, ‘we keep doing what we’re doing and we keep going Our game, hopefully that will be the case next year.”

It was a winning situation there for the No. 20 team. Heading into their fourth season together, they’d already established themselves as a threat, and they intended to make a statement early in 2002.

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Stewart scored two wins early in the 2002 season. (Jeff Gross | Getty Images)

Despite winning the Bud Shootout at Daytona Int’l Speedway and attempting to qualify sixth, Stewart’s 2002 Daytona 500 went up in smoke on the first lap of the season.

A blown engine at The Great American Race put the No. 20 team in a deep hole, 43rd in points.

His bad luck was short-lived though, as he notched three top-five finishes in a row, including a win at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Another victory at Richmond (Virginia) Raceway came later in the spring, as the Home Depot driver’s No. 20 Pontiac jumped into the top ten in points.

“We just went out and did our job every week. We didn’t look at the points,” Stewart said. “There wasn’t a big master plan that season. It was quite literally just going and doing our jobs week after week and trying to do everything we could to win races. We felt that if we did our job, and won races, the points would take care of themselves.”

Going into the summer, Stewart finished fifth in points with his hometown circuit, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ahead of schedule.

Stewart won the pole for the Brickyard 400, but after leading 43 laps, finished 12th.

“When you grow up, which is your dream as a kid, you race, go-karts. Just getting the chance to race at Indy was a dream,” Stewart said. “Then, you want to have that chance, hopefully, to win the Indy 500. That has come and gone in the five years I’ve had an Indy run.

“I think in 2002 of that year, you’d wonder if you’d ever make it. How much pressure I was going to put on myself that week. It had you like a powder keg ready to go off at any moment. You wanted it so badly, you wanted it to run well, But it’s hard. It’s hard for sure. It’s something that no matter how badly you want it, you can make it happen. It just doesn’t do it. It will never fall into your lap.”

When Stewart walked away from his No. 20 orange machine, an argument with a photographer led to a turning point in the season.

The fallout from Stewart’s actions brought fines of $60,000 from both NASCAR and its sponsor, Home Depot. Stewart was placed on probation for the rest of the season.

“At some point, you had to grow up, and I think at the time I was still at that point where I hadn’t grown all the way up yet,” Stewart said. “I was always taught to fight for what I believed in, and that’s what I did. I always fought for what I thought was right, what I believed in, and what I thought was the right thing.

“Sometimes what I thought was the right thing in the big picture really wasn’t.”

While Stewart’s actions were the talk of the town heading into Watkins Glen (NY) Int’l, Stewart led 34 laps and took his third win of the season.

Stewart scored his first career victory at Watkins Glen in 2002 (Getty Images)

“I think about my career, especially my NASCAR career where there were so many weird moments and moments that I would love to go back to, I think the saving grace has always been every weekend you have a chance to come back to the racetrack and go do it,” Stewart said. What you like to do.” “There weren’t any of those distractions when I had that helmet on, there weren’t any of those distractions and those worries.”

With the crash behind him, Stewart and the No. 20 team focused on winning the championship.

A string of five consecutive top-10 finishes, along with challenges from title contenders Mark Martin and rookie Jimmie Johnson, allowed Stewart to take the lead with six races left in the season at Talladega (ala) Superspeedway.

“We had a young team. We were in our fourth year at that point,” Stewart said. “I think everyone was well established, we all knew each other well, and we all knew at that point at Talladega, we had a chance to win this thing. We just had to stay the course and keep doing what we’ve been doing that got us there.”

With an 89-point advantage over Martin before the end of the season, Stewart sought guidance from teammate, Bobby Labonte, to help prepare for the challenges of the title fight.

“He was my teammate, he won the championship in 2000. He knew what those pressures were,” said Stewart. “So it was, I feel like there was a huge advantage to having someone like him in your corner who knew and understood what I was going through and knew what the pressures and tensions of that weekend were going to be.”

After starting sixth, Stewart and the No. 20 team dealt with adversity throughout the 400-mile event.

“I don’t know if the car was me, but we didn’t do well,” said Stewart. “We tested really well in the test session. We went out there for the race, it was like we hadn’t tested at all. But I remember we took a lap.

“I remember it was one of the pivotal moments in the race. The lead lap cars lined up on the outside row and the lap down cars lined up on the inside row. I remember Dale Jarrett leading the race,” Stewart continued. “I was the first car on the lap, so Dale and I were on the restart. Most of the time the lap cars were very polite to lead the lap cars every race.”

“But in this scenario, I just couldn’t do it. I had to sit there and try to at least get myself back before the leaders should the caution come out, to get myself back on the first lap. I had to race him really hard, and I just sat there and worried about, ‘Will he be upset? ‘Cause he’s trying to win the race, and I’m just racing daylight out of him trying to get that spot.

HOMEstead, FL - NOVEMBER 17: Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix lifts the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship trophy as NASCAR President Mike Hylton looks on after Stewart won the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship at the NASCAR Winston Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 17, 2002 in Homestead, Florida (Photo by Robert LaBerge/Getty Images).  |  Getty Images
Stewart (left), along with former NASCAR president Mike Hilton. (Robert LaBerge/Getty Images)

After all was said and done, when I finally saw Dale, he said to me “I knew what you were going up against.” I knew you had to run 100 percent. If he had had his full period, there is no way I could have stopped him. It’s not like he was going to try to run past me as fast as he could. I’ve been really hard on my tires and used everything I could get every lap and this just wasn’t going to last. Fortunately, we got the warning we needed. That took us back to the first lap and then I think we had to finish better than 22 (to win the title). We finished 18th. That was a pivotal moment.”

After a scenario near a championship change, Stewart stuck around.

“I just remember coming out of turn four and going, ‘Just get to the line. Those last 10 laps you start to hear every sound and every noise you think there is, and it doesn’t happen and your brain starts playing games with you.

For Stewart and the No. 20 team, it was a sigh of relief.

An integral part of Stewart’s success in 2002 came from crew chief Greg Zipadelli. Known as “Zippy,” Zipadelli and Stewart went on to become one of NASCAR’s best driver duos in the series for 10 seasons.

After the race, the two embraced the moment and enjoyed it.

“It was amazing, not just with Zippy, but just with all these guys, because the whole team had been together for four years,” Stewart said. “It was great, because Zippy is still to this day, like a big brother to me. To be able to sit there and start out as juniors in the series together. Then four years later, you go out and get your first championship together. It doesn’t get any better than that. This It creates a very strong bond, one that is hard to break.”

Stewart won two more titles, and later became the owner of the Stewart-Haas Racing team.

When looking back at the championship that helped launch his Hall of Fame career, Stewart pointed out the history behind it.

“The thing it did for me was I felt part of a unique fraternity in being a cup champion,” said Stewart. “We won races and by 2002 I would say I felt we had a good relationship with the majority of the drivers and respect for the drivers.

“But to really get that championship and know you’re part of motorsports history in that series was special. The rest of that, I still had to take it personally, but the fact that we were able to win that championship was huge. To be able to Saying, by the end of 2002 we had won the USAC Triple Crown, the National Championship, the IndyCar Championship and then now, the NASCAR Championship.

“We made history at that point at the end of 2002 by doing something no one had done before. Win the IndyCar and NASCAR championships.”

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