From his 2011 title run to his wins while feuding with media, three-time champ excels

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HAMPTON, Ga. – When the chips are down, Tony Stewart's results often go up.

In 2002, he won at Watkins Glen International with his Sprint Cup ride hanging in the balance for striking a photographer after the Brickyard 400.

In 2011, he won five of 10 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, including a victory in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, sweeping to his third championship after proclaiming his team unfit for contention a month before the title playoff began.

He has triumphed while openly feuding with the news media (Dover, June 2000), suffering major gastrointestinal distress inside the cockpit (Watkins Glen, August 2004) and fending off a flurry of distracting team personnel rumors (Dover, June 2013).

It's another layer of the yin and yang that is quintessentially Stewart, whose dichotomous personality alternates between exceedingly charitable and aggravatingly churlish.

But the three-time Sprint Cup champion returns Sunday to his No. 14 Chevrolet at Atlanta Motor Speedway engulfed in a maelstrom that supersedes all of the previous firestorms he's weathered. After driving a sprint car that struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in an Aug. 9 race in Canandaigua, N.Y., Stewart is facing the possibility of criminal charges (the investigation of the incident is expected to last at least two more weeks).

Beyond being immersed in controversy, the driver-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing also has teetered on a pit of despair over Ward's death. Stewart missed three consecutive races in NASCAR's premier series while grieving. He struggled mightily to stay composed Friday in delivering a brief address that offered a heartfelt tribute to the Ward family and explained his therapeutic need of being behind the wheel and in the garage again.

Those circumstances hardly point toward a sterling effort by Stewart in Sunday's 500-mile endurance test on a 1.54-mile oval with an abrasive, slippery surface that demands attention and punishes mistakes on every lap as tires lose grip and change the handling significantly.

Yet his peers don't seem to be discounting his chances, having witnessed a career that's been highlighted by performance under pressure.

"He's one of the best race car drivers I've ever raced against," points leader and four-time champion Jeff Gordon said of Stewart. "I respect him so much. And, as well as the giving heart and soul the guy has. Before this whole incident happened, I was racing go-karts with him out in Knoxville (Iowa) raising a lot of money for charity. He said, 'This is so awesome; we've got to do this again next year.'

"He's that kind of person. He's also a fierce competitor. So, on the track you know if Tony Stewart is out there, you're going to have to deal with him to win that race. He's just an awesome race car driver and just a fun, good-loving guy to hang out with. So, I think we're all happy to have him back."

All indications are Stewart, who hasn't spoken publicly aside from his statement, is happy to be back as well.

He made the final round of qualifying Friday (earning the 12th starting position Sunday) and posted top-20 speeds in both practices Saturday. His team seemed to adapt to his comeback without missing a beat, as Stewart spoke in an almost hushed tone on the team radio while methodically describing his car's handling. When he walked through the garage between sessions, he was swarmed by fans and signed autographs on the way to his motor home.

Through two days, he seemed to have rediscovered the sanctuary he was seeking.

"I miss my team, my teammates," he said in his statement. "I miss being back in the race car. I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."

He also is racing for more than just his mental health and healing, though.

NASCAR granted Stewart a waiver to qualify for the Chase. If he can win at Atlanta or next week at Richmond International Raceway, he will earn one of 16 berths in the 10-race title playoff (despite a three-race absence that normally would disqualify a driver).

Before being sidelined, Stewart had two top fives (a best of fourth) in 21 starts this season, and he hasn't won in 14 months (missing the final 15 races last year with a broken right leg suffered in a sprint car accident in Iowa).

Making the Chase with a victory will take a fantastic effort under duress, but Stewart, 43, has done that many times – and a few long before entering NASCAR 15 years ago.

As a rookie in the 1996 Indianapolis 500, Stewart was shaken after teammate and pole-sitter Scott Brayton was killed in a practice crash. Stewart moved into the top starting spot and led the first 32 laps before a mechanical failure.

In 1995, he overcame near-impossible odds to become only the second person to win the USAC Triple Crown (a trio of national championships), capping the feat with a dogged pursuit to leap-frog over two drivers and win the Silver Crown championship by two points.

Stewart's focus seems to get sharper as his back is forced against the wall. It's a familiar feeling to race car drivers.

"The only thing I know how to compare is if you have ever played a really intense video game," Gordon said. "When you are doing something that you are so focused on, that nothing else is coming into your mind. Sometimes you don't even feel pain because the focus is so strong.

PHOTOS: Tony Stewart through the years

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"It's sort of that mind over matter thing. You are doing something that you enjoy, (and) it's also very challenging, so your brain is on full overload of the senses that come along with driving that race car, especially here in Atlanta. You have your hands full all the way through the corner. Once you get into that car you are not thinking of anything else other than driving that car, and sometimes we all need something like that in life that puts us into that mode. I think that is why I think it is great therapy to be in that race car."

After crediting Stewart's advice to helping him win the pole position with his No. 4 Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick said the catharsis has been evident for his SHR teammate.

"To be able to communicate with him and just see him start that first step of getting back to normal, as his friend, is exciting for me," Harvick said. "Once you get in the car, your mind turns off, and you're really focused on making laps. There's something about being in that zone and not having to listen to anyone else.

"It is relaxing. It's what (Stewart) knows. To be inside that car cures a lot of problems -- for a short time."

Follow Ryan on Twitter @nateryan

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