Stewart Simply Unhappy

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Tony Stewart has been called a lot of things. Jerk. Troubled. Immature. Sensitive. Charming. Funny. Talented.

But after a difficult season in which, by his standards, he’s struggled on the track and gotten into more than his share of controversy off it, Stewart offers another word for himself.

“No, I’m not happy,” Stewart said. “I’ve been unhappy for over a year now. I’ve talked with (team owner) Joe (Gibbs), and I’m not doing anything drastic. I’m not quitting, and I’m not leaving. I’m unhappy with NASCAR. They do a lot of things wrong. For every one they do wrong, they do five things right, but there’s things that can be changed that aren’t being changed right now.

“It’s frustrating for me as a race driver. I’m 30 years old, and I’ve been racing for 23 years. All I ever wanted to do was get to this level. I got here, and I saw all the things that are wrong, and the attitudes about why they’re not done any differently aren’t the responses I want to see out of a professional organization.”

Stewart didn’t want to delve into what he wants changed, but there’s little doubt he disliked NASCAR’s mandate that all drivers must wear a head-and-neck restraint. Clearly, though, Stewart is bothered by the state of NASCAR in general.

“It’s not things we need to discuss with (the media),” Stewart said. “It’s things we need to discuss with NASCAR and it’s things they really need to look at. Our sport went from being who had the best race team, the best race driver and who did the best job on Sunday, to what can we do to make a great show for TV and for the fans in the stands.

“I know there’s an equation there that has to work to make it as good as it is these days. NASCAR didn’t get here because they’re dumb. They were pretty smart to get the sport where it is. But there’s a lot of ways in which things can be a lot better than what they are now, and a lot safer than what they are.”

And no matter how many times Stewart bangs his head against the NASCAR trailer after being told no, Stewart will keep banging his head.

“I fight for what I believe in every week, and that’s why I’m not happy,” Stewart said. “I won’t stop fighting until I feel like it’s where it needs to be and the sport’s as high as it needs to be. It’s a bigger piece of cancer than it was last year.”

Ouch. But that’s Stewart. He’s going to speak his mind, even though he’s gotten in trouble for it. This year, his anger has boiled over in several forms, from his punting of Jeff Gordon after a race in Bristol, to verbally accosting Winston Cup director Gary Nelson on national television, to continually blasting Goodyear tires, to calling anyone who questioned his ability to run the Coca-Cola 600 and the Indianapolis 500 on the same day “idiots,” to loudly complaining about having to wear a head-and-neck restraint.

Is Stewart’s mouth out of control? Is Stewart out of control? Why doesn’t Gibbs do something?

Gibbs has spoken with his driver about his penchant for being constantly embroiled in controversy, but Gibbs doesn’t want Stewart to change his personality. He does want Stewart to understand the world isn’t perfect, and Stewart isn’t always going to get his way every time.

“There are times that he’s said or done things that I didn’t want him to do, and he would probably say he wished he hadn’t done,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got to find a way to deal with all of that. Hopefully, that part of it is going to make him happier as we go. That’s my goal, too. I want him to be happy what he’s doing.”

One specific area Gibbs has tried to help Stewart is dealing with the media. While coach of the Washington Redskins, one of Gibbs’ main duties was talking with media, almost on a daily basis. He learned that sometimes no matter what you say, it might appear in print differently.

So Gibbs became what he called a “vanilla wafer,” closely watching what he said. And he’s tried to convince Stewart to try to do the same.

“I may have been part of the problem,” Gibbs said. “Here’s what I said: ‘Hey, Tony, when you’re upset like that, the best thing to do for all of us is just go to the motorhome.’

“I may be part of the problem because at times I know (the media) have got upset with him because he headed off, and I’ve been encouraging him to do that.”

Learning to deal with media is just one example of how Stewart may or may not be trying to change.

But to listen to Stewart, he is trying to change. And he’s not just trying to change NASCAR. He’s trying to change himself. Asked if there was one thing from 2001 he wished he could do over, Stewart said no.

“I don’t know if I could pick one thing, to be honest,” Stewart said. “There have been so many daggone things that have happened this year that I don’t think you could just pick one. I feel like I’ve done everything that I needed to do. Some things maybe I haven’t done the right way.

“There’s probably a whole list of things I should have done differently. You learn as you go. When you get your NASCAR license, there’s no manual on how to live your life as a Winston Cup driver. We’re just going a chapter at a time.”

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