Stewart Struggling With Burdens Of Stardom

CHARLOTTE -- Tony Stewart wants a little more racing room. Off the track.

He's tired of the burden of stardom, and it might eventually force him to leave the sport.

"I guess it's been overwhelming to me because I'm kind of just your average Joe," said Stewart, who last year lost any possibility of being that with the greatest rookie season in NASCAR history. "I don't like having all the attention."

Since his breakthrough victory last fall in Richmond, Va., and two subsequent wins, attention has been difficult to avoid. What bothers Stewart -- and he insists several other drivers who share his discontent privately -- is that it's getting too crowded in the garage area and too personal elsewhere.

Sometimes fans cross the line, making it difficult for drivers to meet team or personal obligations in a sport driven by multimillion-dollar sponsorship.

"I had an old lady today practically knock me down to get a magazine signed," he said. "It's a distraction. This is our work area."

Stewart says it's great to know people are that excited about the sport, and that the drivers enjoy entertaining them. But he'd like some relief.

"Any time we're out in public, it seems like we're at their disposal," he said. "I don't like having people swarm around all the time."

Car owner Joe Gibbs, who knows plenty about great competitors from his days as coach of the Washington Redskins, says Stewart is one of the most intense he's seen. Sometimes that gets the best of Stewart.

The 28-year-old driver was fined $5,000 last year for throwing heat shields at fellow driver Kenny Irwin, and had a pushing match with Robby Gordon a few days before the Daytona 500 in February. Gibbs chalks it up to inexperience.

"At different times, he has done things that he gets upset about and wished he hadn't done and we wished he hadn't done, but the point is, I think each one of those is a learning experience," Gibbs said.

Stewart, who once labored in virtual obscurity as champion of the Indy Racing League, says the crush of popularity could eventually chase him out of the sport.

"It's getting to where it's not fun doing this anymore," he said last weekend in Richmond, after admonishing a photographer he claimed had been following him for two days.

"Don't you wonder why there's no drivers that stand outside their trailers? Because they can't. That's the part that makes it not very fun for all of us."

Stewart scoffed at the notion that being fan conscious is part of his duty as a star, and took issue with fellow drivers he says are less honest about it publicly.

"There's a bunch of fake guys around here," he said, adding that he once sat with "five major drivers" and listened to them "rant and rave" with opinions harsher than his own about the crush of autograph seekers in the garage area.

"You think I'm bad about my opinions, you ought to hear those guys," he said.

But fellow drivers don't speak their minds for fear of angering fans, he says, while he chooses to speak up because he wants them to understand his side.

Other drivers have mixed feelings on fans mingling about the garage area.

Fan favorite Mark Martin, who often steps out of his trailer to sign autographs and pose for pictures, says there are two ways to view it.

"It's helped the sport become what it is," he said. "At the same time, imagine somebody stepping between Mark McGwire and home plate.

"They're standing between us and our work. It is probably a larger privilege than they realize."

Two-time Daytona 500 champion Sterling Marlin says fans can be pushy, but are the main component in stock car racing's massive popularity boom.

Jeremy Mayfield goes beyond that.

"Without them, we are a hobby class somewhere," he said.

Stewart concedes that his fans helped make each of his victories special. But he struggles with where to draw the line.

"I don't know," he said when asked if he had a solution. "But I don't think things are very good the way they are right now."

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