It was at Martinsville that Tony Stewart knew.
He had just won his third race in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The back-to-back wins to open the Chase no longer seemed like some kind of weeks-ago fluke.
It looked as though he was shaking.
He had moved to second in the points standings, eight points behind Carl Edward, and let an honest thought come out of his mouth: "He better be worried, that's all I have to say. He's not going to have an easy three weeks."
The man called "Smoke" says a lot of stuff. But those words rang out. They caught everyone's attention. Intentionally or not, they became an anthem for Stewart's charge.
Funny thing about that quote. It didn't load the speaker down with pressure. Instead, it put it on the leader. Stewart raced with a surreal ease at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami -- save for one mistake early in the finale that he overcame.
Edwards drove just fine. Neck-and-neck with Stewart, in fact. But maybe just a hair more stiffly. He was racing to hold on to points. Stewart was racing with freedom, the energy of his words at Martinsville behind him.
"We just didn't have that pressure going into it like I thought we would," Stewart said, comparing the feeling of going into the finale this time versus 2005, when he entered the last race of the Chase needing only to finish 22nd or better.
"We had a lot of pressure in '05 to keep that lead and win a championship, where this year, there really didn't seem that pressure that we had before," Stewart said. "It just seemed like we had a great opportunity, and our performance was really good going into Homestead. So I think that took all the pressure away and made it feel totally different."
Stewart leaned on his experience from two previous championships. Edwards was going for his first.
"You know what going into that last race is like," Stewart said. "You know the strains and the pressures that go along with it."
Edwards and Stewart scored the same points in the Chase going into the final race. At the end, they were separated by zero points. The championship went to Stewart on a tiebreaker, five victories to one.
"I'll be honest, Carl Edwards I thought did an excellent job of going into Homestead, also," Stewart said. "With the fact that he hasn't won a championship, I thought he dealt with the pressure very well. I firmly believe that he's going to get one pretty soon here."
Who knows when pretty soon will be, with Stewart at the top of his game. He finished what he started at Martinsville.
"That's when I felt like internally, myself and the organization, we were a contender at that point, and I didn't think anybody should overlook us yet," he said.
And said so. In words that NASCAR will long remember.
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