DOVER, Del. - Tony Stewart, who has been the Winston Cup Series' angry young man of late, wasn't complaining yesterday.
For the past three weeks, frustration has been building in last season's Rookie of the Year. A record-setting, three-time winner a year ago, he had seen a possible victory evaporate in Richmond, Va., because of a pit road accident. His reaction was to go tearing into the garage with his car, and after getting reprimanded by NASCAR officials, he tried to kick his way past a cameraman.
Then, his frustration grew when after an interview there, he saw his own words twisted and used against him, causing angst for car owner Joe Gibbs, sponsor Home Depot and himself.
In Richmond, he had made statements about how many fans were in the garages, how crowded it was for his team to work, and how difficult it was to carry on a conversation with crew chief Greg Zipadelli without being interrupted for an autograph.
When he said it, he hadn't been complaining. He had simply been stating the facts about the working conditions in NASCAR's most popular series. But when his words appeared for public consumption, they were taken as complaints against the fans and the heat descended.
So, yesterday, when his car finally found Victory Lane in the MBNA Platinum 400 at Dover Downs International Speedway and took a victory lap before 135,000 cheering fans, Stewart and his team felt joy but also relief.
"I guess knowing we had a car that should have won Richmond, this was a great way to come back," said Stewart, who with Gibbs by his side last week held a news conference in Charlotte, N.C., to put his comments in the context Stewart said he had intended them.
"It's been disappointing not having the season we thought we would have, but to come here and to get the thing finally done and not have to say, `Well, why aren't we winning?' that's a relief. We can win. There was no doubt in my mind or my team's mind whether we could win. It's just that we needed to get some of that luck back on our side, and we had it today. Everybody out there has the skill to win. It's just sometimes you need a little extra and sometimes that's where the luck comes in.
"And it seems the fans now know the truth about what I said. Having them cheer like that means more than the trophy and the money[$152,830]."
A year ago, Stewart had a rookie season that no one in Winston Cup racing could have imagined. He became the first rookie to win three races and the first to finish in the top five in points, finishing fourth overall.
Yesterday, he averaged109.514 mph to beat this season's top rookie, Matt Kenseth, to the finish line by 1.215 seconds, in3 hours, 39 minutes and 9 seconds.
"Tony did a good job,'` said teammate Bobby Labonte, who was third. "He kept his cool and everything, and that was good."
The last 100 miles of the race were incredibly good and needed some cool. Stewart dominated from lap 107 to lap 290, when under caution Dale Earnhardt, who started 30th, beat him out of the pits to take the lead and set up the beginning of the duel.
Earnhardt led until lap 337, when Stewart made his move for the lead. Going into the third turn, it became obvious - if it hadn't been already - just how dominant he was.
Earnhardt, who almost never gives anyone an easy pass, simply checked up and allowed the flying Stewart to sail unchallenged around the outside.
"And it worried me," Stewart said. "I thought he was playing the fuel-mileage game. I knew he had another agenda factoring in."
At that point, it was still anyone's race because, despite the power of the Gibbs-owned Pontiac, fuel mileage was going to be a factor. A year ago here, Stewart was in a similar position. It was a last-minute stop for fuel that put his teammate, Labonte, into the lead and dropped him to fourth place.
This time, Stewart again needed gas, but he didn't know who else would, or when.
"The best car won the race," said Dale Jarrett, who finished fourth in his Quality Care Ford. "And that's the way it should be. Though we were going to try to win it on fuel mileage, it's just as well."
As it happened, just two laps after Earnhardt and his teammate, Mike Skinner, made the decision to pit, Jeff Gordon's car cut a tire and tapped the wall in Turn 3, bringing out the caution flag.
It meant Earnhardt and Skinner would be a lap down and Stewart, who was still trying to build a big enough lead that he could try to pit under green without losing the lead, could stop for four tires and a full tank of gas.
"We were pulling away from everyone at about a half-second a lap," said Stewart, who pulled away on the final restart as Kenseth and Labonte fought for second place. "Everybody was trying to beat us on fuel. We knew we had a car that was driving well enough to beat everybody. We just needed to take advantage of that."