Former Cup champion will not change aggressive style on the track.
By BRANT JAMES
Published August 1, 2004
Tony Stewart doesn't have to like how much his workplace has changed, but he has to conform to it. To a degree.
Labeled as NASCAR's resident hothead for a litany of on- and off-track incidents since joining the series in 1999, the 2002 points champion seems weary of the extraneous parts of his job as he smooths over the latest incident in his stormy career. "It's not just about driving race cars anymore," he said. "That's the way up to this point it's always been. Now we're representing multibillion dollar companies, we have a TV package and NASCAR is very image conscious now, which they haven't always been.
"Driving the race car, which is what I got hired to do in the first place and what I have been doing the past 25 years of my life, is only a fractional part of my overall job as a Nextel Cup driver. There's a lot more changes that go on in your life than the media could understand in one conversation."
That includes working within the increasingly rigid structure placed on a sport born of free spirits and wild behavior.
"If Tony came through with A.J. (Foyt) and grew up with us, then he would have been right at home," said Richard Petty, who amassed a series-best 200 wins from 1958-92. "A.J. would not be accepted today like he was, no matter how good he was or anything like that.
"Society has changed. Environments have changed, so people look at things different than they used to, whether that's good, bad or indifferent."
With one cowboy-booted leg in the old era and another in the new as a team owner and philanthropist, Petty knows the balance well. It's a balance Stewart has yet to find, he said.
"He's two different people from the standpoint that he's given us a bunch of money for Victory Junction. He's done a lot of personal appearances for that," Petty said. "He pushes that all the time, yet he goes around and does some childish stuff. He does it without thinking. I don't think he's grown up as far as really understanding how the public looks at him. Eventually, he'll see the big picture."
The way Stewart sees it, he hasn't done anything wrong, on the track at least. Though he incurred a $50,000 fine, 25-point penalty and probation until Aug.18 for grabbing rookie Brian Vickers after the June 27 race at Sonoma, Calif., he went unpunished for tapping rookie Kasey Kahne from behind and spinning out the then-race leader on a restart July 11 at Chicagoland. NASCAR ruled Stewart did nothing wrong in wrecking Kahne for the second time this season. And Stewart was on the track when he made an obscene gesture at Rusty Wallace on May 2 in California.
"I don't think it's me on track that has given me the two strikes," Stewart said. "I think it's the way I've handled things off the track that has given me those strikes. Just like the deal at Chicago, (if) NASCAR thought I did something wrong, they would of done something, obviously.
"I talked to NASCAR. Kasey talked to NASCAR. Their explanation of what happened in what they showed me backed up exactly what I said happened. I stuck to my guns saying I didn't do anything wrong. At the same time, if I do something off the track, I know I've got those two strikes on me already."
But even driving with "two strikes" will not change his approach, Stewart said.
After three straight top fives, including a win at Chicago, Stewart is fourth in points, and his prognosis for the rest of the season appears good. He has 15 career wins at the 17 tracks left on the schedule, including one at Pocono Raceway, site of today's race.
So don't expect any deviation from the aggressive, brash style that has irritated opponents but put Stewart in contention for another title with seven races remaining until the Chase for the Championship. It helps that a major effort to douse Stewart's latest flare seems to have worked since Chicagoland. Team owner Joe Gibbs, in a rare extended television interview, supported Stewart and expressed a wish to move past the turmoil. Kahne said during a teleconference last week he had reconciled with Stewart. The rookie had been one of Stewart's most vocal critics, unusual despite the two incidents because Kahne is not the wordy type, and Stewart helped him make the same transition he did from open wheel to stock cars.
"Tony is a good guy," Kahne said. "We talked about some stuff, and everything seems fine I think."
That said, Kahne and everyone else knows Stewart will run through him again today if the right scenario develops.
"I guess I lead the pack of the bad-boy group," Stewart said. "I think there are fans out there that are looking for that guy. Dale Earnhardt didn't get his reputation or popularity by being a good guy. He got it by being aggressive, and he was probably the bad boy in his era. So I don't think it's such a bad thing after all."