Temper in check, Stewart takes Glen checkered flag

In first race on probation, driver wins third of year

Auto Racing

August 12, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - Tony Stewart thrust a gloved fist out of his bright orange Pontiac late yesterday afternoon, but it did not hit anyone this time.

Stewart got to take a victory lap at the end of a terrible week, and he was pumping his fist in jubilation. One week after NASCAR and Stewart's sponsor fined him and put him on probation for punching a newspaper photographer, Stewart won a grinding Winston Cup race at Watkins Glen International, holding off a hard-driving rookie and a road-course demon.

At first, Stewart was contrite after the race. He said that yesterday's victory - his third of the season but his first since May 4 - would not cause him to forget his problems with his temper. He said he still planned to seek professional help.

"It's not going to heal me a bit; it's a Band-Aid," Stewart said of his victory. "It covers it up right now. But tomorrow I'm going to work, getting my life straightened out again."

As the news conference progressed, Stewart got testy. He continued to be peppered with personal questions, many of which he had answered Friday in a mass interview.

"The longer I'm in this room," he said, "I forget that I won this race, and I'm back at Friday again."

Yesterday's victory was not without controversy, either. On the 13th lap of the 90-lap race, Stewart thumped into the Chevrolet driven by Robby Gordon, denting the right side of Gordon's car.

Stewart and Gordon waved at each other, to show no ill will. Gordon, who has four top-five finishes in nine road-course races, would finish third, behind rookie Ryan Newman. But Gordon made it clear that the incident was Stewart's fault, and that it might have made his car less aerodynamic. "That was Tony pushing for space that wasn't his," Gordon said.

Stewart then rocketed away from everyone else on a questionable restart with one lap left in the race. NASCAR marks a spot on the track where the leader can accelerate after a caution period, but Stewart's competitors said he gunned it way too early.

"It wasn't where he restarted earlier in the race, that's for sure," Newman said.

Before the race, Joe Gibbs, who owns Stewart's race team, found himself answering more questions about Stewart, 31, who has won 15 races in 3 1/2 tempestuous Winston Cup seasons.

Gibbs was asked about a rumor that his team had paid the photographer, Gary Mook of The Indianapolis Star, to keep quiet about the incident after Stewart's 12th-place finish in the Brickyard 400.

"Do you think I have to answer that?" Gibbs said. "What people say - I can't prevent what people say. But anybody who knows me knows that is not the case."

Following a strategy laid out by his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, Stewart stayed near the front of the pack all day. Track position is paramount at Watkins Glen, a tricky 2.45-mile course that offers few places to pass.

Stewart appeared to take a gamble by making his last pit stop with 37 laps to go. Thirty laps on a tank of gas is pushing it here. But there were three caution periods the rest of the race, and Stewart was able to nurse his fuel supply.

He passed Newman with 18 laps left. "It was a good, clean pass where he just out-braked, out-turned and out-accelerated," Newman said.

But the race was not over. Kenny Wallace slid backward into the wall with two laps left, and the race was stopped for almost 13 minutes. Newman and Gordon had one more chance. But Stewart was ready.

"I wasn't going to throw this race away because of a delay on the racetrack," Stewart said.

He lingered well behind the pace car on the last lap under caution, forcing the cars behind him to a crawl. Then Stewart abruptly stepped on the throttle and bolted away to win by 1.636 seconds. Gordon said, "I got snookered big time there."

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