Heeding caution flag on anger

NASCAR: Driver Tony Stewart is getting a better grip on how to handle life as a superstar.

Auto Racing

August 28, 2002|By Tommy Ventre | Tommy Ventre,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - It had already been a long week for Tony Stewart. Then this happened.

Shortly after his Aug. 11 win at Watkins Glen International, Stewart heard that third-place finisher Robby Gordon wasn't pleased with Stewart's quick restart after a late red flag. Indeed, Stewart got on the gas well before he reached the designated restart stripe, but NASCAR officials later said the move was within the rules. Stewart had won the race fairly, but Gordon groused nonetheless.

The situation could have devolved quickly. In the week leading up to the Watkins Glen race, Stewart had been fined and placed on probation by NASCAR for punching a photographer at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis, the latest in a string of discipline problems during his four-year Winston Cup career.

Now a fellow driver was questioning the validity of Stewart's most recent win. The situation was ripe for another explosion from Stewart and his well-known temper.

But no such explosion came.

Instead, Stewart responded calmly to Gordon's complaint, standing by his restart and affirming he won the race honestly. No punches thrown, no voices raised, no fines or probation.

Meet the new Tony Stewart, a man who emerged from a three-day lockdown in an Indianapolis hotel after the Brickyard incident with a fresh outlook on how to handle life as a 31-year-old NASCAR superstar.

It's precisely that label - superstar - that Stewart could do without. In four years on the Winston Cup circuit, the former Indy Racing League champion has never finished lower than sixth in the points standings, and insiders have said he's a lock to win a championship before his career ends.

But with all the success has come the pressure of celebrity, pressure that often has gotten to Stewart.

"I don't care about being a superstar," he said yesterday in Rockville, where he was promoting next month's MBNA 400 in Dover, Del.

"To me that's undesirable. I don't want that responsibility. All I want to be is a good race car driver and enjoy driving race cars. That's why I started doing this 23 years ago and that's why I'm still doing it. I never in 23 years of racing wanted to be a superstar."

But that's just what Stewart has become these past four years, and he's admittedly had trouble dealing with it.

"You can't go get a book at the library that teaches you how your life's going to change when you become a Winston Cup driver," Stewart said.

In the wake of the post-race meltdown at the Brickyard, where Stewart had slipped to a 12th-place finish after starting on the pole, he locked himself in his hotel room and didn't come out until he was ready to do something about his anger problems.

"It got to the point where I said, `I can't control this. What I did was wrong and I've got to do something to keep this from happening again,' " Stewart said. "And obviously I can't do it myself."

What he has found in three weeks of counseling is that the solution to his problems likely will come down to being able to put things in perspective, something Stewart said he's struggled with in the past.

"This is giving us an opportunity to step back away from it," said Stewart, who's enjoying the recent introspection so much that he called anger management his "new hobby."

"I'm still doing my job. I'm still doing everything I always do, I still drive the race car the same way. But attitude-wise, I'm trying to look at the big picture."

For Stewart, that big picture now includes a chance at a Winston Cup title. He enters Sunday's Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., in fourth place in the point standings, 139 behind leader Sterling Marlin.

Stewart lost 55 points to Marlin after finishing 24th at last week's Sharpie 500 in Bristol, Tenn., but his history of making runs late in the season has him happy with his position.

"The pressure doesn't go up for me, but it does for Sterling," he said. "To be honest, I'm exactly where I want to be in this points battle. I don't want to be leading the points right now, I want to be the guy hunting these guys down. I still want to run my race each week and I still want to have the mentality that I'm going to win."

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