Reigning NASCAR champ Tony Stewarts says victories in other racing series helped him deal with late-season pressure in 2002.
Most NASCAR Winston Cup champions serve as ambassadors for their sport, spending the brief off-season gripping and grinning with the public before beginning defense of their title at Daytona. Tony Stewart had his chance to work the room the past couple of months as reigning series champion.
Despite winning his first title in what has become the world’s most popular form of motorsports, Stewart still gets testy with the media.
“I blame you guys in the media for making this out to be more than it is,” Stewart said. “It’s just about racing 42 other guys and being the fastest. But (six weeks before the 2002 season) you started asking me all these questions, and I can’t believe you’re asking them. All I want to do is to do my thing and concentrate on the racing aspect of it. I’m just spending time with the car and the team, and that’s helped me deal with all these outside distractions.”
Stewart, who has won championships in everything from the Indy Racing League to USAC, said he felt little pressure going into the final event of the season at Homestead, Fla.
“In all reality, the other championships I’ve won help you learn to deal with it,” he said. “The only difference is that there are a lot more media and a lot more fans in Winston Cup, but winning the championship is still about being the fastest.”
The Winston Cup championship is the latest in a string of triumphs for Stewart, 31, a self-described “simple person” who started racing when he was 8.
Stewart broke into Winston Cup racing full-time in 1999, and made an immediate impact by debuting on the front row of the Daytona 500. He won his first pole at Martinsville, and went on to become the first rookie in series history to win three races in his first year on the circuit, taking the checker at Richmond, and finishing the season with back-to-back wins at Homestead and Phoenix.
In 2000, Stewart was even stronger, finishing the year with six victories – two more than any other Winston Cup driver. Outside of NASCAR he also won two USAC Midget races, and dipped into the business side of motorsports when he became owner of a World of Outlaws team with driver Danny Lasoski.
In 2001, Stewart was in top form, finishing a career-best second in the points standings. He started the year with a win in the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, and later claimed his first road course checker when he won at Sears Point.
In all, he collected three wins, finished second twice and garnered almost $5 million in earnings.
“I’ve raced for 23 years, ever since I was 8 years old,” Stewart said. “I’m a simple person, and being in this series makes things a lot more complicated because of all the distractions. But all we can do is race hard and then we’ll see what happens.”
What happened in 2002 was a points title. And with all the talent at Stewart’s disposal, it probably won’t be his last.