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New NASCAR poster boy won't pose for honor

Unlike recent champs, moody Tony Stewart sees no obligations to PR.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002

HOMESTEAD -- It has been said that Tony Stewart wears his emotions on his sleeve, but a more accurate barometer of his disposition is the look on his face. Like a mood ring with a two-day beard.

He scowls.

He smirks.

He rolls his eyes.

And this could be the new face of NASCAR.

Stewart, Winston Cup racing's petulant bad boy, is favored to win the championship today at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He leads Mark Martin by 89 points going into the Ford 400, the season's final race.

Stewart's talent behind the wheel of a race car is undisputed. But with a nose for controversy and distaste for all things public relations, Stewart, who ran into trouble again Saturday, would make a drastically different champion than NASCAR's recent string of eager ambassadors.

No more Mr. Nice Guy.

"I don't think I'm running for political office," said Stewart, 31-year-old driver of the No. 20 Pontiac. "I'm not doing anything but trying to race for a points championship. That is done strictly off what you do on the racetrack. I've not been told of any quote-unquote responsibilities. If everybody is going to make it a lot more complicated, I'm going to be pretty disappointed, to be perfectly honest."

Stewart, who can be alternately charming and irritable, would be the first champion to end the season on NASCAR probation, the result of his striking a photographer after the Brickyard 400 in August. In hot water with his primary sponsor, Home Depot, Stewart sought anger management counseling and began working with a sports psychologist.

"Tony's a good guy, he's just not a good guy all the time," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's affable vice president of corporate communications. "He can be the biggest jerk in the world, but by the same token, 30 minutes later, can be the most charming guy you've ever met.

"He is A.J. Foyt reincarnated. Foyt was probably the most irascible driver this sport has ever known. And Tony is right out of his mold; his total focus is on winning."

That means Stewart does not have the time, or inclination, to attend the numerous public relations events that, in this era of million-dollar corporate sponsors, take up so much of a driver's time. Nor does he have much patience for the media.

"I respect him for that," said Foyt, a four-time Indy 500 winner. "Why do you have to get into that? If you're a champion, you're a champion. If you're a good race driver, you're a good race driver. I don't think you have to go around and kiss everybody's a-- because you won the championship. I never did, and I don't see him doing it."

Stewart's volatility was an issue Saturday after he collided with a photographer in the Winston Cup garage after the day's final practice. NASCAR looked into the incident, but no action was taken after, several hours later, Stewart apologized and told the photographer it was an accident.

Such incidents never would be an issue with Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett or most of the 43 drivers who will take the green flag today. Gordon, a four-time champion, considers it among his responsibilities as champion to promote the sport and his sponsor. He is jovial with reporters and enjoys being a guest host on Live with Regis and Kelly.

"I think Tony will be a great champion," said Gordon, 31, one of sports' most accessible superstars. "But what he needs to learn is not take this stuff so serious. Just say, 'This is what I do; this is what I'm good at.' Have a good attitude. If you are criticized, you get criticized. Don't take it to heart."

Stewart said Saturday he is not an ambassador, but if he wins the title, NASCAR and series sponsor Winston will call on him frequently to make appearances. Whether he likes it or not, it will be part of the job.

"I'd say there's a balance there you have to try to reach," said Bobby Labonte, the 2000 champion and Stewart's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. "You can be one-sided, it doesn't have to balance evenly, but you've got to balance it somehow. Ten years ago, it probably wasn't the same way, but today, that's the way it is."

Foyt disagrees. The nature of the business has changed, he said, but racing is about one thing: winning.

"People still love a winner, regardless of what his attitude is or how he acts on or off the racetrack," Foyt said. "I've never seen anybody who didn't love a winner."

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