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Winston Cup

Winning, and winning fans over

Tony Stewart, little by little, is making steps to erase his bad-boy image.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003

So, the Winston Cup champion walks into a bar. He selects a cue from the rack on the wall and sets about having a little offseason fun, just he and some hometown buddies shooting pool.

Three NASCAR fans approach him.

They are sincere.

"We don't like you," they say.

The champ just laughs.

Twenty minutes later, Tony Stewart has won over three people who believed with every fiber of their being the reigning Winston Cup champion was a short-tempered, ill-mannered, self-centered, brooding, raging, sneering, scowling jerk.

How could they have been so wrong?

"You would have thought that we were best friends by the time they left," said Stewart, who spent the holidays relaxing with family and friends in his native Indiana.

"The thing is, you can't spend that kind of time with 4- or 5-million people and show them who you really are. That was probably the highlight of my offseason, being able to show those three people who I really am and seeing how they changed their attitude toward me."

Only 4,999,997 to go.

Stewart, 31, whose reputation as NASCAR's most volatile driver was well-earned with a series of bad-boy antics the past four years, would like to put his villainous past behind him. Surely, gentler times await the driver whose mind-blowing talent at the wheel of any race car -- sprint, open-wheel or stock -- so often is overshadowed by his mind-boggling outbursts, tantrums and social blunders.

"I know who I am and what 90 percent of the fans think isn't who I am as a real person," Stewart said. "Am I going to screw up in the future? Sure I am. But I think there are a lot of other things we can focus on. And I'm not saying cover up anything I do . . . but you don't have to take something that happened one time and grind it into the ground 20 times in 20 different places.

"It's a little overkill."

In four Winston Cup seasons, Stewart has 15 victories and finished no worse than sixth in the standings. But he also has been on probation three times and paid $85,000 in fines.

The list of transgressions includes tussling with the late Kenny Irwin at Martinsville in 1999, a shoving match with Robby Gordon at Daytona in 2000, running into Jeff Gordon after a race at Bristol in 2001 and, later that year, angrily confronting Winston Cup director Gary Nelson at Daytona after a disputed black-flag penalty.

The worst, however, came last season, when Stewart roughed up a photographer after the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. For that, he was fined $10,000 and put on probation by NASCAR and, in an unprecedented move, fined $50,000 and put on probation by the team's primary sponsor, Home Depot. Stewart was the first NASCAR champion to finish the season on probation.

"I'm trying to put all that stuff behind me, and it's hard because every week somebody is bringing it back up," said Stewart, who at the series banquet in New York playfully snapped pictures of photographers from the stage and presented his anger-management class certificate to NASCAR president Mike Helton. "You ask yourself, 'When is it going to end? When are people finally going to let it go?' "

In any other major professional sport, Stewart would be an angel. But because NASCAR is funded by corporate sponsors who pay millions to link their products with drivers, the standard is different from pro football, basketball or baseball players.

"I think that's good," said Stewart's team owner, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. "In the NFL, what do you have to do? You have to get by the league rules. If they have a policy and you've got two strikes, then two strikes and you can make it. If you get 2,000 guys with two strikes, you've got a nightmare. Over here, there is a different standard."

Stewart is scaling back this season on the activities that red-lined his free time last year: the Friday night dirt-track races, the four-event International Race of Champions series, the limitless sponsor appearances. That, he said, should allow him to "hit a reset button" more often, do a little "preventative maintenance." Of course, Stewart tries this every year, but it never quite works.

"The reason it doesn't work out, the man wakes up in the morning and has to have 15 things to do," Gibbs said. "That's just his personality. The man is on the go. What I try to tell him is, 'Don't do things for money; do things for fun. Relax. Don't be getting yourself on a merry-go-round of I have to go here, I have to go there.' You can make yourself miserable doing all that."

Already, Stewart is more relaxed than going into any other season, he said, because he no longer bears the burden of proving himself in stock car racing.

"My goal is to have fun this year," he said. "If we win another championship with it, great. If we don't win, as long as we have fun and we know that every week we gave 100 percent, we'll take exactly whatever it gives us. If that is 10th in points, then we'll take 10th this year."

That's fine, in theory. But Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief/friend/Zen master the past four years, suspects that approach will quickly clash with Stewart's competitive nature.

"It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks," Zipadelli said. "We're all getting better at dealing with having a bad day. If you feel you did 100 percent, regardless of what your result was, you need to be happy with that. But he's tough on himself, and I'm tough on myself. . . . We'll see how this year goes."

Stewart seems humbled by last year's against-all-odds championship, aware of the torment he caused family, friends and team members with his bad behavior. If true, it is perhaps a sign that Stewart is maturing.

"Those guys went through a lot last year. We all did," Stewart said of the No. 20 crew. "I'm just trying to make things a little more efficient, a little easier to where those guys aren't worrying about, 'Well, what happens if he has a bad day?' I'm just trying to look outside my circle and say, 'There are more people involved here,' and 'What can I do to help the race team?' "

Last year, Stewart and his team overcame last place in the season-opening Daytona 500 and five more DNFs to beat veteran Mark Martin by 38 points in a down-to-the-wire title chase. Stewart amassed three wins, 21 top 10s and a series-high 15 top fives.

This year, Zipadelli wants his team to be the first since 1978 to win consecutive titles with different manufacturers. After winning two of the past three championships with Pontiac, Joe Gibbs Racing will field Chevrolets for Stewart and 2000 champion Bobby Labonte this season.

"Last year, we did what everybody said we'd never accomplish," Zipadelli said. "It took an awful lot of effort, emotional and mental, that other teams didn't deal with because of our problems. At the end of the year, I couldn't have gone another couple weeks. Now, you have to find a way to motivate yourself, set your goals back up and do it again."

Early in his NASCAR career, Stewart admitted his feelings were hurt when fans booed during driver introductions, that disapproving letters to the editor tormented him. He wondered how people who never had met him could hate him. He took it personally.

But no more.

"Most of those people I'm not ever going to see. And I don't want them to think the way they're going to think, but at the same time, I'm not going to let it rule my life," Stewart said. "The only thing I can control is what I do on and off the race track, and I'm really trying hard to change that part of it myself."

Perception will follow.

So, rack 'em up -- it's Stewart's break.

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