By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 20, 2002
Tony Stewart climbed out of his car Sunday after finishing second at Michigan International Speedway and didn't consider snarling. Not even a hint of a frown.
Stewart, who punched a photographer the last time he failed to win a race, has made steady progress the past two weeks in the quest to win his first Winston Cup championship. And that's something to smile about.
"I'm pretty happy, to be honest," Stewart said.
The winner at Watkins Glen and runner-up Sunday to Dale Jarrett, Stewart has gained three positions and 127 points on leader Sterling Marlin since he punched photographer Gary Mook Aug. 4 at the Brickyard 400. The controversy, he said, has helped the Joe Gibbs Racing team sharpen its focus.
"I think it was kind of like hitting a reset button for our whole race team," said Stewart, who trails Marlin by 84 points with 13 races left. "That, and even before all that happened, our race shop has been working 24 hours straight in some departments for a week, trying to get some areas of our program better than what they were, and it's showing up now, too.
"But, having the last two weeks like we've had, I feel a lot of momentum for our team and that's definitely what we needed for the rest of the year."
MARK YOUR CALENDARS: The 2003 Winston Cup schedule was released Monday, with one change in the 36-race slate: The October race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., will be a Saturday night race.
The season opens Feb. 16 with the Daytona 500 and ends Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The 34-race Busch Grand National series schedule also was released, with the only change the swapping of two dates. The series will visit New Hampshire in July, the same weekend as Winston Cup, and Gateway International in St. Louis in May.
THIS IS RIDICULOUS: What's left of Silly Season hinges on Ricky Rudd, and it's getting old.
Rudd, the veteran being replaced at Robert Yates Racing by Elliott Sadler, supposedly was close to signing a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, but that was two weeks ago. It seems Ford doesn't want to see the popular driver climb out of his car in Victory Lane next year and say, "Man, this Dodge ran good."
If the manufacturer is willing to subsidize a deal, Rudd still might end up with the Wood Brothers, the single-car team Sadler left, or the Andy Petree-Jerry Jones team, which is expected to switch from Chevrolet to Ford.
Meanwhile, no one with an open seat will hire a driver until it is sure it cannot land Rudd. The other free agents: Bobby Hamilton, Ken Schrader, Jerry Nadeau and John Andretti, who has not re-signed with Petty Enterprises.
Talk about an anticlimax.
OLD DOG, OLD TRICKS: While the competition between NASCAR's young guns and veterans seems to have fizzled -- or maybe we have gotten used to it -- a battle for the ages is brewing in the NHRA's fastest division.
Kenny Bernstein, in his farewell tour at age 57, beat points leader Larry Dixon, 35, in the finals of the Rugged Liner Nationals in Brainerd, Minn. Bernstein trailed Dixon by 259 points in June, but the deficit is 80 with seven races left.
"It's World War III every weekend because you have to stay up there with him to chomp away the best you can at their points lead," said Bernstein, who won for the fourth time in eight final-round appearances. "It's fun.
"That's a great team over there and Larry's a great driver. I know I have to get up for them or he'll beat us."
PIT STOPS: Kevin Harvick was third Sunday, his fifth top 10 in six races. ... Owner Richard Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon, is a second baseman on the Clemmons, N.C., team playing in the Little League World Series. Childress skipped Saturday's Busch race and MIS to watch him play. ... Ryan Newman's blown engine ended a streak of five straight top-five finishes.
The top five drivers in the Winston Cup standings -- Marlin, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Stewart and Jeff Gordon -- are separated by 150 points with 13 races left, the smallest margin in NASCAR history. Marlin leads Martin by 43.