With heat off, Stewart smells roses

Having won Cup title, driver shows mellow side in readying Daytona bid

February 15, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Tony Stewart emerged from his race car after practice one day this week and draped his arm around a photographer.

"Hey," he said. "You want to be careful in here with all the cars moving around during practice."

The photographer paused.

"OK," he said, not knowing quite how to act.

This is a different Tony Stewart. This one is no longer encumbered by the pressure to win his first Winston Cup championship.

This one is champion.

Six months ago, Stewart was pushing, bumping, insulting and otherwise making life miserable for photographers, reporters and, at times, his own crewmen, as he dug deep to overcome a last-place finish in the Daytona 500 and win the Winston Cup title.

Tomorrow, he will start 10th in the 45th Daytona 500 and take an initial step toward becoming the first first-time champion to repeat since Darrell Waltrip in 1981 and '82. And Stewart feels good about his chances.

"If I knew the exact answer, I'd be a bookie in Las Vegas," he said. "But [the car] is pretty strong right now. I was patient in the 125 qualifying race. I didn't put us in a compromising position, and I kept the thing in one piece. I need to work on my chassis, that's for sure, but the car has been sporty at times."

Should he win, he'd pull off another rare feat. In 1976, Cale Yarborough also finished last in the Daytona 500 and went on to claim the championship. The next year, Yarborough did something no one else has ever done. He won the 1977 Daytona. It is the only time a Daytona 500 has been won by a driver who finished last the year before.

To match Yarborough, Stewart will have to wheel a Chevrolet instead of a Pontiac to victory lane, as the Joe Gibbs-owned team switched manufacturers during the offseason.

"It's not as bad as it could be," said Greg Zipadelli, who has moved from being Stewart's crew chief to team manager of the two-car effort, which includes 2000 champion Bobby Labonte.

"Everyone is adjusting to the new [aerodynamic] templates and no team has an advantage," Zipadelli said. "I think the guys who put the most effort into it will find the most success, and I find it hard to believe anyone has outworked us in the offseason."

At the same time, Stewart will try to handle the media crush that so overwhelmed him at times last season.

"I honestly can't imagine our season being any worse than it was last year," said Stewart. "People say, `How can you say that? You won the championship.' But we started off 43rd in points. I don't want to leave Daytona 43rd in points this year.

"We did it the hardest way you can imagine. All of the stupid stuff I did off the track coupled with six DNFs [did not finish]. Who would have ever thought you could win a Winston Cup championship with six DNFs? ...

"I think if we can have a season that's half as bad as the last one - on and off the track - it will make for a fun season this year."

Stewart said he doesn't want to have to battle the adversity that surrounded him in 2002.

"I don't want all the headaches and hassles," he said. "Oh, I'm going to do three or four stupid things this year - I'm human. But I think we are a lot better prepared for just about anything that comes our way. We don't have to answer the question, `Can we win a championship?' and `Can we overcome the adversity issue?' "

In the past, when Stewart has run badly on the track, he has run badly off it.

Part of his troubles seem to stem from a defensive attitude. He said his words are sometimes misconstrued by those who write about him and by those who hear him speak.

"I've been crushed for things I've said," said Stewart. "Maybe I didn't say it in the perfect way that everybody understood. I'm sure that was a lot of it. But what people don't understand is that we have a very time-consuming job. No one knows what it's like.

"I was a Busch car driver and I thought I had all the answers before I got here [to Winston Cup], and I thought I was prepared. Boy, did I find out that I was wrong. Four years learning, and I'm still learning and still trying to adjust to it."

In August, after his car became non-competitive late in the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis, he exploded at the print media, photographers and his crewmen. After that, his every move was watched, photographed and judged.

An anger counselor was hired. Apologies were made. Gibbs, his car owner and former Washington Redskins coach, compared him to former Redskins receiver Gary Clark, whose competitive nature sometimes drove him into Gibbs' face during practices.

"I used to tell Gary, `I hate you Monday to Saturday, but I love you on Sunday,' " said Gibbs. "And it's the same with Tony. And it's funny, Bobby [Labonte] will bite your nose off, too, but he has a different way of presenting it that doesn't tick everyone off.

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