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Humble Stewart has 2nd Cup title in sight

WP: All four drivers with a shot lavish respect, admiration for each other
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Had it been a weigh-in on the eve of a Las Vegas title fight, there would have been some trash-talking or taunting or, at the very least, strutting and posturing.

Instead, the banter was dominated by oaths of mutual respect Thursday as NASCAR gathered the four drivers in contention for the 2005 Nextel Cup championship on the terrace of a Miami hotel, where palm trees swayed in the background, for the benefit of journalists covering Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead Miami-Speedway.

"Doesn't get more relaxing than this," mused front-runner Tony Stewart, who holds a 52-point lead over Jimmie Johnson. That's a comfortable margin under NASCAR's mind-numbing points formula. What it means is that Stewart need only finish ninth or better and lead at least one lap on Sunday to clinch the title and $5 million payout.

So there was no need for Stewart to glare down his challengers, who also include the precocious Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Stewart found himself in the proverbial catbird seat Thursday -- well-fed, having just enjoyed a catered lunch with his challengers; well-rested, having done nothing but sleep and walk his dog since arriving in Miami on Wednesday; and well-positioned, above all, to win what would be his second NASCAR championship and a third for car owner Joe Gibbs.

With his shirt-tail out and dark sunglasses on, Stewart found it easy to be charitable. Why profess mock sympathy for Johnson, who is on track to finish second in the championship race for a third consecutive year?

"It's pretty flattering to know that he's been in the top two [for] three years in a row, if it turns out that way," Stewart said. "That's pretty impressive."

Why bother intimating that the 26-year-old Edwards, who hadn't even raced on asphalt until four years ago, hardly belonged on the stage? The self-effacing Edwards offered the confessional himself.

"To be honest with you, me personally, I don't feel like I should be here," Edwards said. "I feel like there's a lot of guys in this sport who have paid a lot more dues and who, on average, have run better at a lot of tracks."

And why needle Biffle about his bad luck at Texas two weeks ago, where a loose lug nut sent him to the pits for a green-flag stop and, in turn, all but scuttled his shot at the title?

The paunchy Stewart wouldn't even take the bait when asked if there wasn't a good-natured jab he'd like to land on one of his rivals, choosing instead to answer with a self-deprecating crack. "I'm the only one that's in the heavyweight division here," said Stewart, who has grown more barrel-shaped each year behind the wheel of his No. 20 Chevrolet. "These guys are in the light-weight [division], and so we're not even competing against each other."

"But I'll be honest," Stewart added, striking a more sincere tone. "I think that's what makes me respect this sport versus others. Even though the goal is fighting hard against each other on the racetrack, at the end of the day, we are all friends, and we all get along with each other, and we all enjoy what we're doing."

The others were quick to chime in.

"Everyone has won championships and races," Johnson said, "and I think that's just what you see up here on stage is that we all do respect one another."

Said Biffle: "It's a lot of high stress and pressure and takes a lot of ability to do what we do every week. So you have to respect your peers for them doing the same thing, and all three of these guys have done a little bit better than what we have done."

Added Edwards, who has won four races in his first season in NASCAR's elite ranks: "We're just the ones that get to go out and race these cars, and it is really cool at the end of the day when you win. It's the most unbelievable feeling in the world. But we all know what it takes, and there's so many people behind the scenes, I don't know if it would do much good to be up here trash-talking one guy on the team. There are so many guys [that make a team successful]."

Such expressions of warmth and admiration hardly set the stage for a tension-filled climax to the season.

But a measured approach is what NASCAR's 10-race, postseason Chase for the Championship celebrates through a points system that rewards conservative driving and punishes racers who strive for too much. Ever so gently, Stewart suggested that formula, and the priorities it prizes, might need "a little tweaking."

"Through the first nine weeks I was worrying about having bad luck instead of worrying about who is the best that given week," Stewart said. "I wasn't as much worried about having a good day as not having a bad day. So I don't think the championship should be decided on who is worried about having the worst day."