More Bite Than Bark

For a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve -- and on his helmet, his gloves, his socks and his briefs – Tony Stewart is one of the most misjudged drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series.

“One thing about me; people don’t have to guess about what’s going on in mind,” says Stewart, winner of the Saturday night-into-Sunday-morning’s Pepsi 400. “I’m honest. I’m very black and white about how I feel. I’ve always felt like if somebody asks me an honest question I should be able to give them an honest answer, not holding anything back.

“I know for a fact that we have a lot of the race fans that we do have because we get that comment from them a lot.”

Temperamentally-challenged when he joined the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup ranks in 1999 full time, the Indiana native says one of the drivers he most admires is the fierce and fiery A.J. Foyt –another racer notorious for speaking his mind. Several years ago after a botched pit stop ruined his chances for a victory at Brooklyn, Mich., Foyt told a national television audience he lost the race because his crew had their heads stuffed in a position that is anatomically impossible.

Great live television, but the show’s director had to be airlifted to the closest psychiatric hospital.

Since the inception of television’s five-second delay, drivers and other athletes miffed at what has displeased them have been saved from problems of their own making. But the horde of media that covers NASCAR NEXTEL Cup events still have their pens poised and tape recorders running to capture the most colorful observations.

After winning a major race Sunday morning at Daytona International Speedway, his first restrictor plate contest, Stewart was out of the verbal danger zone. Having led a record 151 of 160 laps in the rain-delayed event, Stewart’s biggest challenge was climbing the fence – a tradition started by Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves – and, going a couple of steps further than the Indy Racing League star, saluting and the fans from the flag stand.

“Nobody ever goes all the way to the top,” says Stewart. “I’m way too old and fat to be doing that, (but) once I started I was committed.”

A mere twenty-six words. But had he let forth with an encyclopedic discourse, the 2002 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion couldn’t have given a better glimpse into the state of his mind and soul.

As the circuit enters Chicagoland Speedway for Sunday’s USG Sheetrock 400, Stewart is nearly giddy at his chances of repeating as event champion. Describing him as “giddy” might be a slight exaggeration, but there’s no mistaking he is decidedly upbeat about his chances of making a repeat visit to victory lane.

In a nutshell: Once a sometime-snarky interviewee who reporters approached with trepidation, Stewart since the 2005 Daytona 500 (in which he finished seventh), has been laid back to the point where questioners have wondered if he underwent an off-season personality transplant. In truth, after several years of self-protection, he was merely letting the public get a glimpse of the real Tony Stewart.

So who is the real deal? A driver who fights for every inch of pavement, which is the main reason he has nine championships to his credit, including three karting titles, four USAC crowns, an IRL championship and the 2002 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup trophy. And a guy who has given back an incredible percentage of the more than $35 million he has collected in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup winnings through the Tony Stewart Foundation, funds which are distributed to organizations that help care for critically injured children and that support families of drivers injured in motorsports accidents.

He has personally given more than $1 million to Kyle and Pattie Petty’s Victory Junction Gang, a camp for chronically ill children the Petty’s built in honor of their late son, Adam. And with Kyle Petty was named one of USA Weekend Magazine’s Most Caring Athletes.

So is Stewart at saint? Hardly. But he’s also far from the unfeeling, bad-tempered curmudgeon he is sometimes portrayed to be – especially when he comes up short of his personal expectations. He is still upset at his close loss to winner Greg Biffle in June at Michigan. Climbing from his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet after his triumph two weeks ago at Infieon Raceway, it took a stellar performance at Daytona – which helped him jump from fourth to third in the series rankings – to put his Michigan finish to bed.

The biggest sign Stewart’s sense of humor is as intact as his talent? His sudden spate of “fat” jokes that aren’t altogether accurate – 170 pounds on a 5-foot, nine-inch frame isn’t exactly obese. But the fact he is making jokes about himself is as telling as his trackside performance.

“I might have the biggest stomach out there,” he says, “but so far it doesn’t seem to be slowing me down.”

No kidding, bud. But until his pouch gets in the way of steering that wheel, his slimmer rivals had better beware the “fat” man is still singing.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2005, Tony Stewart

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