Stewart Gaining Focus

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No one doubts Tony Stewart has the talent. Stewart is as good a driver as anyone in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Since he came to NASCAR’s highest division, he’s run up front. He’s won 12 times in 104 races, going to victory lane three times in his rookie season, six times in 2000 and three more times in what he called a disappointing season last year.

Yes, he can drive. Yes, he can drive well. But is talent alone enough to win a championship? Isn’t there an emotional consistency that needs to be maintained over the grinding schedule? Does Stewart have that?

Jeff Gordon, who has taken his immense talent and honed it into championship form, isn’t so sure Stewart does.

“His intensity is his best friend and his enemy at the same time,” Gordon said. “There’s nobody out there who’s more talented, and I don’t think there’s a anybody out there who’s more capable of winning races and championships.

“But I definitely see where there are things that get in the way of the focus. We all have things we have to work on and things we need to improve on.”

Gordon said he had to learn how to not lose his cool in the car. And while not saying that’s what Stewart needed to work on, there’s little doubt Stewart was on Gordon’s mind.

“There’s no doubt in my first couple years, something that I worked on a lot was staying calm and cool and trying to keep my ego, keep my composure in check,” Gordon said. “I felt like I focused better and did a better job in the race car throughout a 500-mile race and the whole season.”

Even Stewart’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby Labonte, questioned whether Stewart had the temperament to compete for the Winston Cup title. Labonte won the championship in 2000, saying staying on an even-keel throughout the season was important.

“If those skills were honed a little bit, maybe it would be (better for Stewart),” Labonte said of Stewart. “He easily could have won this year if other things hadn’t happened, too. It would be better for him, personally, if he didn’t do some of the things he does. But to each their own, as far as personality. We keep reminding each other that that’s what makes the world go around.”

Lately, Stewart’s world has been wrapped in controversy. One off-track incident after another left people talking less about his driving skills and more about his volatility. He was fined twice last year and had one probation period extended.

Stewart has always spoken his mind, but the way he’s said things have rubbed many the wrong way. He has vowed to tone down his words before, but controversy has continued.

But for 2002, Stewart insisted things will be different. He’s tired of “outside distractions” and vows to get rid of them.

“Being volatile doesn’t make you a good race car driver,” Stewart said. “Winning races makes you a good race car driver. The distractions outside the car are what make me volatile. So we’re going to eliminate the distractions, and I’ll probably be less volatile this year.”

While Stewart didn’t specifically list what the distractions are, it’s clear his dealings with the media are high on the list.

“If it doesn’t make the race car go faster or it doesn’t promote Home Depot, then I’m not messing with it,” Stewart said. “I’m not messing with the outside distractions.

“I’ll show you my contract. My contract tells me what I have to do and what I don’t have to do.”

Stewart did talk about procedures after races, asking the media for a 15-minute “cool-down period” before he talks.

“If I don’t talk to you in that first 15 minutes, I’m probably upset about something,” Stewart said. “You guys give us the courtesy this year, we’ll give you what you need to get your jobs done better. It’s a two-way street. You work with us, and we’ll work with you.

“But if it becomes a distraction to what we’re doing, we’re going to cut it out. My job is to make sure I do the best job I can for Home Depot and Joe Gibbs Racing. If any of it’s a distraction to what we’re doing in the car, we’re not going to mess with it. We’ve already got a list of people who have always been good to us and know how to deal with us. It’s just a matter of everybody else learning how to deal and work with us in the same manner. Once everybody figures that out, I think everybody will be happy with the results.”

Stewart said he hasn’t thought about how he’ll do in the championship race, who his biggest competition will be and what his team’s biggest weakness is.

So the question remains: Does Stewart have the temperament to win the Winston Cup championship? Only Stewart can answer that, but even he can’t answer it now. Check back with him sometime in October.

“I’ve pretty much simplified my approach to this year,” Stewart said. “Any outside distractions are not going to be distractions this year. The easiest way to look at is (there are) 36 races. You take it one week at a time. That’s my approach to it. I’m not speculating on how we’re going to do.

“If we give 100 percent each week and know that each guy is giving 100 percent, we’ll take what it gives us. We can’t predict what’s going to happen, we can’t guarantee what’s going to happen.

“With that in mind, it makes my life a lot easier if I go out there and do the best I can every time I’m in the car, and let the rest take care of itself.”

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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