So, he felt good about dedicating his victory in the New England 300 on Sunday to Irwin, killed Friday when his car crashed in practice at New Hampshire International Speedway.
"We weren't always on the best of terms, but we always brought out the best in each other," Stewart said. "We always respected each other."
Facing a fuel problem Sunday, Stewart got lucky and won the rain-delayed race, which was shortened by 27 laps.
He dominated, leading 156 of 273 laps. A year ago, a fuel miscalculation by his crew chief cost him the race.
This time, a decision to remain on the track once he got the lead before the first of two rain-caused red flags, proved decisive. He was happy for crew chief Greg Zipadelli, whose bad math was costly last year.
But most of all he was happy he was able to come through for Irwin.
"I want to win this one for Kenny," Stewart said during a rain delay halfway through the event. "I'm sure he's riding along with all of us this weekend."
Meanwhile, Mike Helton, NASCAR's chief operating officer, said the cause of Irwin's crash remained undetermined. The death came eight weeks after Busch series driver Adam Petty was killed in the same low-banked third turn.
Stewart's Pontiac, like the cars of the other 42 drivers, had a decal that read: "In Memory of Kenny Irwin."
Stewart collected $164,800 from a purse of $3.1 million.
A slightly subdued crowd of 101,000 filed out quietly after NSACAR called the race. There were no post-race celebrations, and Stewart didn't take a victory lap as the rain began to fall harder.
Stewart and Irwin had raced each other hard for most of the last decade, starting with midgets and sprints before both moved to NASCAR.
Last October, they banged into each other twice in Martinsville, Va. The second collision sidelined Stewart, who threw heat shields from his shoes at Irwin an act that resulted in a $5,000 fine from NASCAR.
"We had our ups and downs," he said of Irwin. "But it was two guys pushing each other hard."
Stewart said he was badly shaken by the death of Irwin.
"It was a wakeup call, a reality check," he said. "I was late getting started this morning because I didn't want to miss all the tributes to Kenny on TV."
"I still think I'm going to walk around the corner and find him there."
Last July, Stewart dominated late in the race but lost whe he ran out of fuel with less than three laps remaining. His crew inexplicably failed to bring him in for a splash of gas even though he was safely in the lead.
That blunder cost him what would have been his first career victory. Later, he won three times on his way to a fourth-place finish in the points race capping the best rookie season in history.
This time, he would have been forced to pit with about 20 laps left.
Stewart, whose victory Sunday gave him a series-leading three, was so upset after losing last year to Jeff Burton that he left without speaking to the media. He later apologized.
Nine weeks after that 10th-place finish, Stewart returned to New Hampshire fresh from his first career victory, and again attacked this troublesome, 1.058-mile track like few ever have. But an engine problem late in the race relegated him to a second behind Joe Nemechek.
At the end of the season, Nemechek vacated that car, and the ride went to Irwin.
The victory Sunday capped an eventful week for Stewart, whose plane had to make an emergency landing Wednesday in Asheville, N.C., when it developed an engine problem en route to a promotional appearance in Evansville, Ind.
Stewart won a rain-shortened event for the second time this season. He took the Kmart 400 at Michigan Speedway last month when it ended with four laps remaining. He also won a week earlier in Dover, Del.
The race was the first of second half of the 34-race Winston Cup season.
Martin, winless since April, was in a commanding position had the race gone the distance.
"We started off wallowing in mediocrity and progressively made it better," he said. "The two guys in front of would have had to stop for gas.
"But it would have been robbery because the 20 car (Stewart) was the class of the field."
Nemechek wasn't disappointed with his finish.
"It was one of those-close-but-not enough days," he said. " We put a new motor in it this morning, and we overcame a lot of odds."
Series champion Dale Jarrett, who finished seventh, is 68 points back.
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