The series champion shows his better side

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Good Tony came gushing out in torrents of candor, warmth, humor and humility.

Bad Tony was nowhere to be found.

In the early returns, Tony Stewart, Winston Cup champion, is simply magnificent in the role.

After that, we shall see.

But what occurred after sundown Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway after he'd finished 18th in the Ford 400 to lock up the season title was more than a mere champion's press conference.

It was more confession, therapy session, catharsis.

He volunteered that during his tribulations of this season -- the punches, the outbursts, the accusations of mistreating fans -- things were even more turbulent inside his team.

"There were times when guys wanted to leave because they just didn't want to work for me," he said. "I don't blame them. The way my attitude was this season, I wouldn't have worked for me. We did lose a couple of guys. ...

"I've had heart-to-hearts where I've sat and cried with guys in" crew chief Greg Zipadelli's "office and said, 'I'm sorry for what I'm doing to you guys. And I'm not doing it because I want to hurt you; I'm doing it because I'm frustrated. If you'll bear with me, we'll make it right.'

"And hopefully with this championship we'll make some of it right. There's a lot of things I'm not ever going to be able to repair, the things I've done to some of those guys."

Mark Martin, the man Stewart beat for the championship by 38 points, said, "Yeah, he's intense, and yeah, it's going to be interesting to watch his performance in the champion's limelight, because it's a tremendous load.

"But I admire Tony. ... I'm a Tony Stewart fan. He's a racer's racer."

NASCAR insiders say Stewart is a guy who'll drive anything, anywhere, but would really rather be back on the Saturday-night dirt tracks of his youth in Indiana, free of the glitz and public demands of major motor racing.

"I am a commercialized racer," Martin said. "You have to be, in this business, and I've done my very best to represent the sport the best way I can.

"But down deep, I'm like Tony. I'd rather be on the road right now, headed toward a dirt track.

"He just didn't step in and get this stuff given to him. He's won everywhere he's ever been"

But neither has Stewart considered his path up a struggle.

"I started racing because I was too lazy to work a real job," he said.

A part-time racer since age 8, Stewart said that when he was 20, "I was sitting in the middle of Rush County, Indiana, running a drill press, sitting on a metal stool on a concrete floor. Then I went out to Phoenix to the Copper World Classic and finished second in a Silver Crown car. My share was $3,500. When I got back to work, I'd sit there running that drill press, trying to figure out how many $5 hours it would take me to make $3,500.

"I realized that if I were a full-time race driver, I could sleep till noon. I could go to the track at four, I'd be done by midnight and I'd still be wide awake.

"If I could do that three nights a week and pay the bills ... not that I haven't worked. I've sealed parking lots. I've driven a tow truck. I've done some pretty terrible jobs."

The hard-knock past and intense present have won him the admiration of his peers. Bill Elliott, a vastly different personality than Stewart, earlier this year called Stewart one of his best friends even on the same day, Aug. 4, that Stewart socked a photographer at Indianapolis. Then Dale Jarrett stood up at a drivers' meeting and led a show of support for Stewart, already on probation for the Indy incident, while he faced a Tennesee grand jury investigation for criminal assault, for allegedly shoving a fan at Bristol.

"He's been pulled and pushed and twisted and turned in so many different directions," said Kurt Busch, the winner of Sunday's race. "But as a driver, I see Tony on a different level. ... He's a very warm individual. He won't spite you."

Just how differently Stewart is viewed by his peers than by the outside world showed Sunday. Other drivers and crewmen flocked to congratulate him.

"As much as everybody wanted to get out of here and go home, because we all need a break, they thought it was important to come out and see me," Stewart said. "To have your peers come out there and congratulate you like that I don't care what check Winston writes, I don't care how many trophies they give me, the feeling and satisfaction of seeing those guys out there is more than money can buy."

Maybe now that Tony Stewart is officially the leader of his peers, Good Tony will stay.

Ed Hinton is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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