HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Tony Stewart got the job done Sunday, winning the Winston Cup championship with an 18th-place finish as Kurt Busch raced to victory in the Ford 400.
Stewart came into the race knowing he needed only to finish 22nd or better to beat Mark Martin in their championship duel, no matter what the challenger did. Martin gave it a game try, but came up 38 points short.
Stewart never led the 267-lap race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but was easily good enough to beat Martin, who finished fourth.
"Unbelievable!" Stewart said as he got out of his car and thrust his hands skyward. "We never gave up. I'm really happy. This team deserves this."
Stewart, who has undergone anger management sessions for his fiery temper that has led to fines and probation, then hugged his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli.
"We had a tough year, it's been up and down," Zipadelli said. "It was worth it."
Joe Gibbs, the former coach of the Washington Redskins, added Stewart's championship to the one earned by Bobby Labonte in 2000.
Martin said Saturday he would need a miracle to catch Stewart, who came into the race leading by 89 points. He didn't get it.
"We gave them everything we had," Martin said. "Those guys were just stronger than us."
His car owner, Jack Roush, said Gibbs' team "had the best program all year and they deserve the championship."
Stewart, who had won two of three previous races on the 1 1/2 -mile oval, started sixth but never contended in this one, driving a conservative race that saw his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac fall a lap down midway through the event.
The 31-year-old racer, who was NASCAR's Rookie of the Year in 1999, last won a championship in 1997 in the Indy Racing League.
Busch, who started from the pole Sunday, finished the season as the hottest driver in NASCAR's top stock car series. Sunday's win was his third in the last five races of the year and put him in third place in the standings, 159 points behind Stewart.
Rookie Ryan Newman gambled and stayed on track during a caution period late in the race as all the other leaders pitted. Busch came out fourth, also trailing rookie Jimmie Johnson and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
Busch made it to second place before John Andretti's blown engine brought out the last caution on lap 237. He put constant pressure on Newman after the green flag waved on lap 245 and finally took the lead for good on lap 257, pulling away to the win.
Joe Nemechek finished second, followed by Jeff Burton, Martin, Gordon and Newman.
Stewart finished fourth in the points as a rookie, sixth the next year, and a distant second to Gordon a year ago. Considered a favorite this season, he got off to a disastrous start, blowing an engine and finishing last in the Daytona 500.
It took until the second half of the season for Stewart to get hot. As other leaders stumbled in front of him, NASCAR's bad boy moved to the top on Oct. 6 in Talladega - the 30th race of the 36-race season - and stayed there.
"This was an ugly day, just like Rockingham a couple of weeks ago," Stewart said after climbing from his car. "We stayed just enough ahead to beat Mark."
Stewart spent a lot of 2002 under a cloud as his temper got him in off-track trouble. After punching a photographer in August in Indianapolis, NASCAR put Stewart on probation, and that's the way he finished the year.
Stewart, who wiped away tears with a towel before getting out of his car, admittedly does not like dealing with the media and mobs of fans.
He has repeatedly said he doesn't believe being the champion should give him any more responsibility or make him an ambassador for the sport.
"I don't know if I'm qualified to be a leader of this sport. Guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are what made this sport what it is," Stewart said when he accepted the trophy.
"All we can do is the best we can. The greatest thing was coming down pit lane and seeing my peers from different teams. They're what make the series what it is. I'm not going to change anything. I'm not the leader of this sport."
Martin praised Stewart, calling him "a racer's racer."
"Down deep, I'm just like Tony. I'd rather be down the road at a dirt track," he said.
Stewart grew up racing on the Midwest's short tracks and readily admits his first love is racing at the smaller tracks.
In 1995, he became the first driver to win the U.S. Auto Club's midget, sprint and Silver Crown series' in the same season.
Newman and Johnson battled for Rookie of the Year honors throughout the season, turning in two of the best first-year performances in NASCAR history.
Johnson finished fifth in the points and Newman finished sixth, but Newman was named the top rookie following the race. He finished the year with one win and 22 top-10 finishes, while Johnson won three times, matching Stewart's rookie record, and 20 top-10s.