Stewart cooler but still driven

NASCAR driver learns to keep intensity on track

Auto Racing

May 02, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Bare-footed Tony Stewart pads out into the living room of his motor home at last week's race in Fontana, Calif., ready to be interviewed. Stewart, dressed in jeans and a striped shirt, looks relaxed. He has a ready smile and settles back on a couch.

These days, this is a rare opportunity, because Stewart is noticeably absent from pre- and post-race interviews. Over the past two seasons, he has learned his honesty, spontaneity and competitive nature can bring trouble tumbling down on his head.

This season, there has been no trouble, because there have been few chances for him to get into any. That doesn't mean Stewart has changed. He is just as opinionated and driven as ever. He just doesn't let many other people see it.

At Winston Cup races, Tony Stewart has become a recluse.

"It's not productive for us," he said, when asked about this season's new approach. "Doing all those interviews doesn't make my life easier. History has proven they create more pressure, that I can get myself in trouble, and the more I get in trouble, the more counterproductive it becomes. So, screw it.

"It is much easier just to drive the race car and go back to the bus."

Veteran driver Mark Martin has watched Stewart learn to cope with being under a microscope.

"He is a very intense person, which isn't always the most admired personality trait," he said. "But every driver has that intensity to some degree, and every driver handles it differently."

Stewart has always said how much he admires Jeff Gordon's cool, calculating disposition. And Gordon, for his part, admires Stewart's talent.

"He's such a great driver," Gordon said. "And he has so much potential. But the things he's done in the past [have] taken the focus off the good things. I believe that if I'm in control of what I do or say, I'll be better focused on the racetrack - and I think that's what he's learning."

Last season, Stewart often was portrayed as critical of fans and hot-headed. He said he often felt betrayed, as if his words and actions were taken out of context. But, in one unforgettable instant in 2001, he joined the ranks of those sports figures who have lost their cool before the media. Upset at a question, Stewart knocked a tape recorder from a reporter's hand and kicked the device under a truck.

Almost all of the incidents involving Stewart - from race-day shouting matches with other drivers to his call for getting fans out of the garage area - have come from his frustration over not winning. Though it is presumptuous to compare Stewart, who has yet to win his first Winston Cup championship, to the legendary A.J. Foyt, their natures are not dissimilar.

"It's the fire," Foyt said recently about himself, "that makes a man a competitor."

Stewart has the fire, all right, and this season, he has a game plan designed to use it to his advantage instead of having it used against him.

At Fontana, he had a car that might have been able to win. But in the early going, the throttle linkage broke. Instead of a top 10 finish, Stewart ended up 29th and lost two places in the Winston Cup points standings. No doubt he was irked by his bad luck, but no one knew. After the race, he went directly back to his motor home, leaving crew chief Greg Zipadelli to answer the questions.

This weekend, Stewart goes into Saturday night's Pontiac 400 at Richmond International Speedway in 10th place.

"I could be leading the points with a little luck," said Stewart, who has one win and five top-five finishes. "But, it's part of the sport. Look at our record. Take [five] races out of the equation, and I am top five everywhere else. To be [10th] in points, while being out of the top 10 five times in 10 races and to claw our way into the top 10 - we know what we're doing is right."

He is more dedicated than ever to winning the Winston Cup title. He has avoided controversy. Scheduled his appearances, autograph and e-mail sessions with fans away from the track, where he says he can concentrate on them and not be worried about his racing.

To keep his focus on NASCAR and to avoid any freak injury, he has even decided not to compete in the Indianapolis 500, a hard decision for an Indiana native who was once the Indy Racing League champion.

"Next weekend is Mother's Day, and I'm going home," said the Rushville, Ind., native. "But I'm trying to fill my schedule so I won't have time to go to the racetrack. I know if I go to Indy, I'll be tempted to get in a race car."

He will visit with friends, go fishing and, he said, "chase girls." When a female reporter casually commented that it sounded like a fun weekend, Stewart gave a demonstration of how quickly words can be misconstrued.

"You like to chase girls, too?" he said.

"No, no. I thought it would be fun for you," he was told.

"You see how it happens," he said, laughing but making his point.

Race facts

What: Pontiac Excitement 400

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Richmond (Va.) International Speedway

TV: FX

2001 winner: Tony Stewart

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