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Stewart fast with car, faster with mouth

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2002

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony the Tiger roared Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in more ways than one.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony the Tiger roared Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in more ways than one.

Tony Stewart, an Indiana native who grew up in nearby Columbus, set a track record for stock cars in winning the pole for today's Brickyard 400, then ran his mouth at an equal clip. Stewart has avoided the media this season, but had no choice after lapping the 2.5-mile speedway in 49.191 seconds at 182.960 mph.

He pulled no punches.

"This is my hell week," he said. "As much as I love being home, I hate this week. I'll bet my phone rang 400 times (Friday) night because everybody knew it was my only night off. Between them and family, and being at home and wanting to do well in front of all your friends and family, that puts a lot of pressure on me."

Wait, there's more.

Asked about the soft walls making their NASCAR debut here, Stewart lauded the speedway for taking the initiative and blasted the rest of NASCAR's track owners.

"I just wish some of these other racetracks would step up and do the same thing and take the lead," he said. "(New Hampshire) decided to change the racetrack and try to kill all of us when we were there a couple weeks ago. The least they could have done was put up a softer wall for us to hit because we were all going to hit it eventually. ... I question the logic of track owners. They're real good at counting money, but the rest of it, I think they're totally lost on."

Stewart, however, has his facts wrong. New Hampshire International Speedway owner Bob Bahre wanted to install soft walls at his facility for the July21 event, but NASCAR said the barriers required more testing.

Instead, Bahre tried to improve safety at the track where Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed in crashes in 2000 by changing the racing surface. Early in the Winston Cup race, the surface began to crumble, causing several drivers, including Stewart, to lose traction and hit the wall.

Oh, well. That's Stewart.

Asked if NASCAR had a response to Stewart's comments, vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter offered this: "We consider the source."

SETTING THE FIELD: The top five drivers -- Stewart, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Robby Gordon and Ryan Newman -- broke the track record of 181.072 mph set by Brett Bodine in 2000 as 50 drivers attempted to make the 43-car field.

Elliott, who won from the pole last weekend at Pocono, was going for his third straight but settled for his eighth top-five start in 10 races in the No. 9 Dodge.

"I'm kind of on the pole," he said. "I'm just on the wrong side of it."

Steve Park, who crashed hard at Pocono, Kevin Harvick, points leader Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin and Joe Nemechek completed the top 10. Three-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon was 21st.

Among those who used provisionals to make the field were rookie Jimmie Johnson, third in the series standings, Kurt Busch, Elliott Sadler and 2000 Brickyard winner Bobby Labonte, Stewart's teammate with Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch had one of the fastest cars in Friday's practice but spun on his first lap and did not post a time.

BRICKYARD TRADITION?: Marlin says it's a coincidence, but if he makes it to Victory Lane today, he'd like to see this trend continue: Each of the past four Brickyard 400 winners has gone on to take the Winston Cup championship.

"Hopefully, we're No. 5," said Marlin, who leads the points by 106 over second-place Martin. "If we don't win it, it's not the end of the world. History has to be broken sometime."

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