As the 2011 NASCAR championship heads into the final weekend of the year, Tony Stewart has the opportunity to become the first owner-driver champion since the late Alan Kulwicki accomplished the feat in 1992.
The comparisons have begun to trickle in between Stewart and Kulwicki, but looking at the two former champions as one in the same is the wrong approach.
While Stewart is an owner-driver like Kulwicki, his path and approach to that situation could not be more different. Kulwicki was a hard-nosed perfectionist who sold all he owned on a gamble to move from Wisconsin to North Carolina in an attempt to make it in the world of NASCAR.
Stewart came to NASCAR from the open-wheel ranks, established as a successful racer and former champion. There was no real gamble in Stewart's move to NASCAR. For Kulwicki, however, it was all or nothing.
Turning down offers from the top teams at the time – among them NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson – Kulwicki's mantra was to do things his way, no questions asked. While this may have led to a revolving door of crew members, his tenacity and determination allowed his independent organization to battle the biggest organizations at the time for the championship.
For Stewart, the role of team owner came as an offer, not as an ultimate goal.
After leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, the offer to partner with Gene Haas and form Stewart-Haas Racing put Stewart in an unfamiliar role in NASCAR. While he already owned a World of Outlaws team and multiple race tracks, Stewart's role as a driver and team owner in the Sprint Cup ranks was a new endeavor, too good to pass up.
Times are certainly different in NASCAR these days, but the makeup of Stewart's organization and Kulwicki's small-time team could not be more different.
Thanks to a partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing is able to pool resources, motors and manpower from the biggest and best team in the sport.
Kulwicki was on his own with limited resources, bucking the trend to fight the big teams owned by Junior Johnson and Robert Yates.
Going into Sunday's season finale, Stewart's team is shaping the battle as a "Game 7 moment" between the average guy and the polished pretty boy (that would be Carl Edwards).
Stewart's public relations company sent out a release that said: "In Stewart vs. Edwards, it's the Everyman vs. the Cover man, Chevy vs. Ford, grit vs. suave, stubble vs. polished."
While Stewart's race may be a "Game 7 moment," Kulwicki's season finale in 1992 was a "Hail Mary" pass. Entering the final event second in the standings behind Davey Allison, and with six drivers still in contention, Kulwicki knew he was the underdog in the fight and refused to back down.
Using a methodical and calculated approach in that final race, Kulwicki was able to lead the most laps and score one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history.
To win the title this weekend, Stewart will need to outrace Carl Edwards and win the race and the championship outright. While he will make history to become the ninth three-time Cup Series champion, he will not have done so in the same fashion as Kulwicki.
Both talented champions, Stewart and Kulwicki are more alike on the track and behind the wheel than they are in the role of team owner.
Sure, if Stewart is able to win his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship this weekend he will do so as an owner-driver, but it will not be like Kulwicki's yeoman effort 20 years ago.