Stewart makes fast impression

Winston Cup rookie, 28, already a threat on circuit

July 25, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. -- Tony Stewart has come on the Winston Cup circuit like a whirling dervish in his bright orange-and-white Pontiac.

Compared to current star Jeff Gordon and the late Davey Allison, who as a 1987 rookie was the last to win in his first season, he has Winston Cup regulars eyeing him as one more driver they have to beat.

"I've heard the comparisons to those guys," said Stewart, 28. "And I'm flattered. I don't know if I deserve them. There's just something about these Winston Cup cars. I've felt comfortable in them from the very first day I sat in one."

From the very first day, he has been a wonder. Going into today's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, he is sixth in the Winston Cup points race. To date, only one rookie has finished his first Cup season in the top 10, Jody Ridley in 1980.

Yesterday, Gordon, who also knows what it's like to be treated as a "Wonder Boy," said Stewart deserves credit for what he's accomplishing, but rejects comparisons to himself.

"When I was a rookie, I wasn't as smooth and patient as he is," said Gordon, 27. "I didn't have the feel for the race car he has. It wasn't until the second half of my second season [1994] that I came on strong. He's been coming on strong from the get-go. I was 21 and he's about my age now."

And Gordon says Stewart has much more experience than he did at the start of his Winston career.

Rusty Wallace, the St. Louis native who opened the doors to Midwesterners when he showed up in 1980, agrees with that, saying Stewart already knows more than a lot of veterans.

"I think Stewart is a very good talent," Wallace said. "I admire anyone who understands the nuts and bolts. I think Gordon still doesn't know a shock from a yo-yo. But he's getting the job done, so I guess that's OK."

In 18 races, Stewart has five top-5 finishes and six others in the top 10. He also gained fame by finishing ninth in the Indianapolis 500 and fourth in the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Others have raced in both, but Stewart is the first to finish all 1,100 miles. Afterward, he was a wreck physically. Heel burns, a blistered backside, a hand and knee rubbed raw and dehydration took their toll.

But Stewart was able to muster a smile, "I wouldn't have traded this for anything," he said.

His passion, he said, started when he was about 5 and riding down the highway with his father.

"Dad was real mad about something and driving about 80 or 90 miles an hour -- back when the speed limits were still 55," Stewart said. "And I thought, `Man, this is so great!'

"By the time I was 8, I was racing go-karts with my school friends and going about 50 mph the kid who won got the bragging rights the whole next week and the good-looking girls."

Today, he'll start 12th and attempt to give another demonstration of his talent and passion.

Two weeks ago in Loudon, N.H., when he ran out of gas while in the lead with 2 1/2 laps to go, Stewart's reaction was to storm into his trailer and scream at himself in the mirror. He never re-emerged.

"I know it's hard to realize how much emotion was involved for me," said Stewart, who has apologized to everyone he left hanging that day. "I had a right to my emotions, I was that close to winning my first Winston Cup race. But I showed a great lack of maturity."

Not winning has been a big adjustment for the former Indy Racing League champ. He has won in every series he has run before coming to NASCAR. In 1995, he became the first driver to win the USAC "Triple Crown," winning the National Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown championships in the same year.

In 1996, he was the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. The next year he captured the IRL title.

"I want to win," Stewart said. "But I'm not planning on winning. That's the difference. In this series, if I finish in the top 10, I feel like I've won and if I finish in the top 5, I feel like I've won a doubleheader. The competition is so tough here, you've got to be almost perfect to win."

NOTES: Blaise Alexander won the Pepsi 200 ARCA race yesterday, averaging 111.576 mph in his Chevrolet. Jerry Hill of Port Tobacco, Md., finished 32nd in the 40-car field.

Lineup (Car number in parentheses)

1. (31) Mike Skinner, Chevrolet, 170.451 mph.

2. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 170.078.

3. (33) Ken Schrader, Chevrolet, 169.933.

4. (18) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, 169.827.

5. (43) John Andretti, Pontiac, 169.786.

6. (25) Wally Dallenbach, Chevrolet, 169.527.

7. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 169.517.

8. (22) Ward Burton, Pontiac, 169.453.

9. (40) Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet, 169.444.

10. (42) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 169.399.

11. (3) Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 169.103.

12. (20) Tony Stewart, Pontiac, 169.074.

13. (45) Rich Bickle, Pontiac, 169.059.

14. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 168.909.

15. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 168.868.

16. (7) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 168.792.

17. (2) Rusty Wallace, Ford, 168.789.

18. (99) Jeff Burton, Ford, 168.761.

19. (28) Kenny Irwin, Ford, 168.615.

20. (12) Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, 168.574.

21. (23) Jimmy Spencer, Ford, 168.391.

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