Climb To The Top

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Who would'a thunk?

Of the 43 drivers who grace the grid each Sunday, including some who prize political correctness more than others, it's Tony Stewart –Mr. "I don't care if you like me but how about some respect?" – who has injected the series it with some much-needed Freon-inducing bumps in these simmering days of summer.

Of all people it's Stewart, who has been so hot lately his Senor Smoke moniker may have to be changed to Sir Sizzle, who has injected some pizzazz into the newly-christened Race for the Chase, which constitutes the 10 races prior to D -- for delusion ends or darnation, we made it -- Day Sept. 10 at Richmond, Va. Which isn't to be confused with the second-year Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, the final 10 races of which will culminate in the crowning of a series champ Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami.

Stewart, who has staked his reputation on his disdain regarding how he is regarded, who has come up with what he insists is his new signature move – climbing up and over the fence and howling in triumph from the flag stand – who has returned the sport to its cave-man roots as it eases into the new millennium.

So what if the blog-zones are already buzzing in outrage that Stewart, winner of three of the last four races, including Sunday at New Hampshire, has designated for himself a move first made famous by Helio "Spiderman" Castroneves, who loped up the links at Indianapolis following his inaugural Indy 500 victory in 2001. And oh yeah, Alex Zinardi has been credited with ponying up with the first post-victory donut.

By this time tomorrow June Pocono winner Carl Edwards will be credited with inventing the back flip. Not necessarily a must-have move in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup ranks, but it's gotten a lot of mileage.

Is this why Smoke all of a sudden has decided to climb what must seem like Mt. Everest after wrestling a 3,400-pound speeding bullet whose cockpit is 180 degrees around a 2.5-mile tracks for 200 laps, as he will during Sunday’s Pennsylvania 500? True, Pudge himself has noted the need for a personal fitness regimen to burn off some of those calorie-laden milkshakes he devours, but couldn’t the notoriously silent smoke alarm have chosen a less-public manner in which to sculpt his curves?

Maybe Martians slipped to earth, sucked him into their ship and sent back a kinder, gentler version. One whose personality transplant is now devoted to jazzing things up for spectators – the same NASCAR fan-atics who he snubbed over the years (we won't even start on his run-ins with the media) in his inimitable "I'm smoke and you're flamed" manner.

To tell the truth, Stewart has entertained this section of grandstand for years, his make-like-a-clam act just another challenge to try and out-maneuver. But anyone who came of age during the Dale Earnhardt years, when a simple yes or no could take months to coax from his lips, has to enjoy the challenge.

So what are we to make of Stewarts antics following victories at Daytona and New Hampshire, when he scaled – and then popped over – wired fences and last week made his way into the flag stand to salute the cheering throngs?

"It didn't matter whether the fans had on a Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. or Rusty Wallace hat, they were all cheering. They (knew) I (was) doing it for them," crowed Stewart after climbing from his frenzied perch. "It didn't matter if they liked me or hated me, they were still cheering. I'm probably going to bust my butt, but I'm going to keep trying it."

While the Pocono Raceway event is next up, there is no disputing the victory Stewart most covets is in his home state of Indiana. Having missed out on an Indy 500 crown, Stewart has six NASCAR NEXTEL Cup starts at the Brickyard with no finish higher than fifth and none lower than 17th. Along with his new fan-friendly antics, the 1997 Indy Racing League champion and 2002 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup titlist is now openly gushing that "If I could give away my (championship) and just get one win at Indy, I would do it in a heartbeat."

He hasn't specified which championship, but it doesn’t matter. This guy wants to suck it up, hunker down and kiss the bricks at Indianapolis. After, of course, he scales Mt. Brickyard, tears off his helmet, rips the checkered flag from starter's hands and bows hosannas to the crowd.

In a sport in which his rivals sweat off 10 pounds a race – the already reed-thin Kurt Busch lost three tuxedo sizes during his last-gasp run to the 2004 title – the one mystery which still surrounds Stewart is his inability to burn off a few libs. A suggestion: You know that Home Depot ad that has Stewart grab a magazine and head for the Port-a-Potty, only to have the door open to a luxurious spa? In the new one Stewarts heads for one door and Busch another, and when they exit Stewart is newly slim while Busch has plumped out and no longer looks anorexic.

Scheduled to test this week at Indianapolis, it is yet to be seen if Stewart has in tow a new personal trainer. Presumably the guy is going to have to have thicker skin than a four-sided football. But crazier things have happened; maybe the new and improved Smoke is now geared to small sacrifices for big rewards.

As they say in Indy: Hold the burgers, chuck the pizzas. Stewart isn't the leanest but he is now the un-meanest whippet in town.

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