Tony Stewart has won his share of races, lost a few, crashed a little and spoken out a lot. Win or lose, there are those who will wonder if smoke is about to start pouring out of Stewart. Not his car, but Stewart himself.
Stewart launched his attack on this year’s Winston Cup with a win at the MBNA America 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March, (his 13th Cup win) but suffered a scary wreck at Darlington the following week. But Stewart still has the power to be a lightning rod for storms on and off the track.
In just his fourth year on the Winston Cup circuit, Stewart has had run-ins with fellow drivers, reporters and Winston Cup officials. Last year after just failing to win the EA SPORTS 500 at Talladega, he refused to speak to the media.
Like it or not, Stewart has become the driver many fans love to hate.
“Being volatile doesn’t make you a good race driver. Winning makes you a good race car driver,” Stewart said. “The distractions outside the car are what makes me volatile, so we’re eliminating the distractions. We probably won’t be volatile this year.”
That being said, there is no question Stewart is one of the best drivers in the series, with real hopes for the Winston Cup points title now that the 2002 campaign is in full swing.
Wrecks can make or break a Cup campaign, and there are always fans quick to jump to conclusions about their causes. For a high-profile driver like Stewart, that can mean being blamed when he’s nowhere near the crash.
“I’ve been racing for 23 years and I’ve been in a lot of wrecks that weren’t my fault,” Stewart said. “You just do what you can do. Even when it does happen, it’s not something that the other guy did on purpose, obviously, so its just part of what we do.
“It’s part of our sport.”
Stewart started racing Winston Cup full-time in 1999, and made an immediate impact by debuting on the front row of the Daytona 500. He won his first WC 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.
Last season he kept up his three win a season pace, and finished second in the points standings, 349 behind champion Jeff Gordon.
“My responsibility is to get in the car and give 100 percent for 36 points races,” Stewart said. “We have to just take what it is and if we fall short, because we as a team didn’t do a good job or I didn’t do a good job, we just have to do the best we can and take what it gives us.”
As for the world seeing a kinder, gentler Tony Stewart in 2002 – well, don’t count on it.
“If it doesn’t make the race car go faster or doesn’t promote Home Depot, I’m not doing it,” he said. “I’m not messing with it. I’m not messing with the outside distractions.”
When asked if drivers had a certain obligation to deal with “outside distractions,” Stewart got testy.
“I’ll show you my contract,” Stewart said. “In my contract it tells me what I have to do and what I don’t have to do.”
Should be another interesting season for Stewart – and everyone who deals with him.
Meet the Drivers
Hometown: Emporia, Va.
One of the most likable drivers on the Winston Cup circuit, Sadler drives Fords for Wood Brothers Racing. Sadler was second in Rookie of the Year standings in 1999, and has quickly established himself as one of the up-and-coming drivers in the series.