HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Tony Stewart is volatile, unpredictable, sardonic, headstrong and, above all, a great race car driver.
That description of NASCAR's newest champion could also apply to one of Stewart's heroes, A.J. Foyt Jr.
Foyt, a car owner in NASCAR's Winston Cup series and the Indy Racing League, was "the person you measured yourself against," driving great Mario Andretti said.
"If you beat him, you knew you'd beaten the best. If you lost to him, you knew you'd been beaten by the best," said Andretti, perhaps the most versatile and successful American driver besides Foyt.
Foyt came from the mean dirt tracks of Texas and raced anything on wheels, winning in a variety of cars. His most famous accomplishment was becoming the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, but the bigger-than-life Texan also won the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Stewart, too, is a man for all racetracks. The brooding bad boy of NASCAR added the Winston Cup title to his 1997 IRL championship and a sweep of USAC's midgets, sprints and Silver Crown cars in 1995.
In all, the 31-year-old racer from Indiana, who started his career in karting, has won at every level - nine championships in a 23-year career.
Stewart says he is happiest when he is racing or hanging out with friends at any bull ring dirt track.
After team owner Joe Gibbs decreed that Stewart had to cut back on his racing outside NASCAR, Stewart came up with another reason to be at the small tracks. So, he bought a World of Outlaws sprint car team, and driver Danny Lasoski gave him a championship there in 2001.
There are other similarities between Foyt and Stewart.
Foyt kept up a running war with the media and often got physical with people and machinery. He once pushed a camera back in the face of an aggressive photographer, slapped a driver who protested one of his team's victories, bashed the malfunctioning engine of an Indy-car with a wrench, and slammed a laptop computer to the ground in rage after a pit mistake cost one of his drivers a chance to win at Indy.
Stewart was fined and placed on probation earlier this year for punching a photographer, verbally sparring with the media, getting physical in the garage area, and using his car as a battering ram against competitors.
After Stewart wrapped up his first Winston Cup championship Sunday in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he paid homage to Foyt.
"I think the coolest part about this whole thing is that I finally did something that Foyt didn't do," Stewart said, smiling. "Most people don't realize, but the first Indy car I ever drove was for A.J. at Phoenix.
"It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. But it was one of the best experiences of my life, too. The relationship I built with A.J. that week will last a lifetime."
Stewart said Foyt was rough on him.
"I never got verbally beat up as bad as I did with A.J. for five days. His favorite comment when I was proud of something I did ... 'Just check the record books, big boy.'
"Well, you're right A.J., check the record books," Stewart added. "He may have won Daytona and he may have won Indy, but he hasn't won an Indy-car championship and a stock car championship. I finally got one up on the old man."
Foyt, sought out repeatedly in recent weeks for his views on Stewart, said he understands what drives the new champion.
"He just loves to win," Foyt said. "He don't race for the money. He races for the glory. And all he wants to do is race and be left alone to do what he needs to do."
One of Stewart's goals was a Winston Cup championship, although he didn't want to admit how important it was to him until after he got it.
"I guess if I had to retype my resume tomorrow, I'd put it No. 1," Stewart said. "To say that the Winston Cup championship isn't my greatest accomplishment in racing right now, I think I'd look pretty stupid. And my heart tells me that it is."
He won't have much time to enjoy the accomplishment, at least not right away.
The Gibbs team took part in testing all-new 2003 Chevrolet Monte Carlos here Monday.
"There is not going to be a lot of time to reflect" on the title, Stewart said. "I don't think it's going to change a lot.
"It's not going to change me in any way. It just shows you that it can be done and it's probably going to make us work even harder to try to do it again."
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