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Stewart shines in the spotlight

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2002

Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart was up to his window net in public appearances last week when he made a startling revelation to a crowd of reporters.

He was having fun.

Stewart, who makes no secret of his distaste for the public relations responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with being a famous NASCAR driver, enjoyed his whirlwind week leading up to Friday's nationally televised banquet.

"I thought by Wednesday I'd be on suicide watch," said Stewart, who was on a hectic schedule starting Monday. "Actually, it's all been great. I've had a blast."

Stewart's itinerary included a stop at the White House to meet President Bush in the Oval Office, visits with New York City firefighters and police officers, closing the New York Stock Exchange, appearances on television talk shows, media interview sessions and posing for pictures in the falling snow in Times Square.

Even before Stewart clinched the title by 38 points over veteran Mark Martin, talk turned to how Stewart would handle the public relations demands of being NASCAR's champion. But the 31-year-old is off to a good start. He was funny and charming during his week in the spotlight.

"It's not the most comfortable thing in the world for me, but it's part of what the champion is expected to do, and I'm doing it," he said of the appearances. "The visit to the White House was really a great experience."

That's not to say Stewart isn't looking forward to a little quiet time in his native Indiana during the holidays to visit with family and friends -- not a camera in sight.

"The simplest things in my life are the most gratifying," he said. "Going to Pizza King, playing video games, fishing. These are the same people I grew up with."

STILL POPULAR: Veteran driver Bill Elliott, awesome again after several years of mediocrity, was chosen by fans as NASCAR's most popular driver for a record 16th time. Elliott, 47, narrowly beat Dale Earnhardt Jr., with Jeff Gordon and Stewart a distant third and fourth.

"Everything I do the fans are so supportive," said Elliott, unable to attend the New York awards ceremony Friday because of inclement weather. "They support me when I have a good year or a bad year."

Elliott, whose career was resurrected under owner Ray Evernham, won twice in 2002, including the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. He won his only championship in 1988.

TEAM USA: Winston Cup drivers Gordon and Jimmie Johnson teamed with world superbike champion Colin Edwards to win the Race of Champions Nations Cup in Gran Canaria, off the coast of Africa.

The competition, held during the Thanksgiving holiday, featured three-driver teams from nine countries, each with individuals specializing in circuit, rally/off-road and motorcycle racing.

Four-time Winston Cup champion Gordon handled the circuit driving, former off-road racer Johnson the rally and Edwards the bike. They beat France in the semifinals and Italy in the final.

NONSTOP TESTING: An unprecedented 34-hour test session was held Thursday-Saturday on the road course at Daytona International Speedway as teams prepared for the 24 Hours of Daytona in February. The test featured a continuous 28-hour session from 10 a.m. Friday to 2 p.m. Saturday.

The test was for the new Daytona Prototype class, which replaces the SportsRacing Prototype open-cockpit cars as the premier class in the Rolex Sports Car Series.

THE LAST WORD: Stewart, on Fox's Best Damn Sports Show Period, when asked if he will curtail his emotions next season: "Trust me, I have already set aside $10,000 to give NASCAR for probation for next year, because I'm sure I will get into trouble again."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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