Stewart among friends, family

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Four months ago after a difficult Winston Cup race at New Hampshire Speedway, Tony Stewart made an ill-timed comment on national television that he couldn't wait until he made enough money to quit racing in the series.
   Thursday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac talked about how those in NASCAR's premier division have now become family.
   "You're with these people more than you are with your family," said Stewart, 31, as he readies for the Food City 500. "They become your family. We're around each other on the Cup series 130 to 140 days a year. These people are our family.
   "It drives me crazy at autograph sessions, when people say I should put this guy or that guy in the wall. Nah, those are friends of mine. Even though, the media likes to create rivalries, it's frustrating to hear people say that. This isn't wrestling. We're living breathing human beings that enjoy being around each other."
   He points to a a wreck last Sunday with Buckshot Jones and puts an end to things before they're blown things out of proportion. "He called me at the hospital to see if I was all right," explained Stewart. "He got up into the wall and it made his exit off the corner higher than he wanted to and he got loose. There was nothing he could do about it."
   Much of Stewart's changed outlook has to do with the aftermath of the wreck at Darlington, SC where many of his fellow competitors called to check on him after his car was t-boned by the oncoming car of Jimmy Spencer.
   "Monday and Tuesday, all I did was answer the phone," said Stewart. "Everybody was like, 'Man, we hate to bother you.' My response was, 'Everyone that said that stood behind me.' Nobody knows how much I appreciate that, having all those calls.
   "That was the best feeling. You can't take a pill and get that kind of feeling. Knowing that people care meant more than anything. I heard a lot of guys talking about their drivers asking if I was OK."
   As violent as the wreck at Darlington was, Stewart says it's not his worst ever behind the wheel. "Las Vegas, '96 in an Indy Car was still the worst," said the 1997 Indy Racing League Champion. "The sidewall of my right rear tire blew out and I hit the wall at 220 miles per hour. It hurt my shoulder blade, collarbone, left hip and pelvis. I didn't walk for two months after that one."
   Tony is still the IRL's all-time lap leader, although he only raced in the series full-time for three years. One IRL race he is trying to finalize a deal on is this year's Indianapolis 500. He also has a dirt late model ready for the track, if his busy schedule will permit.
   During this past off-season, Stewart took home the trophy in one of open-wheel racing's biggest events, the annual Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Perhaps that's why he says these cars are his favorite of all to drive.
   "I still like the midgets the best," said Tony. "You can drive the same car on pavement one night on a half-mile and run a quarter-mile dirt track the next day. It's always fun because you can run such a variety of tracks with the same car.
   "Each car you get into has different techniques that you have to use to drive it properly. I do that to try to stay versatile that way. It keeps me from having to get stuck in a pattern of thinking a race car has to be driven a certain way."
   In the more pressure-packed world of Winston Cup racing Stewart has worked hard not to say anything controversial this season. "I'm not a new Tony Stewart, I'm the same Tony Stewart," said the driver who's currently 12th in the NASCAR point standings. "You learn how to deal with things on a daily basis. Each week, you learn how to deal with things out of your control.
   "I don't read the papers anymore. That's made my life easier. I didn't get into this to be a popular person. I got into auto racing, because I love driving race cars. I don't think I'm any different than anyone else. I'm the same guy I was 10 years ago. I just have a really neat job. The popularity and the fame and all that, I could care less about."
   If Stewart lets his on track performances does the talking, that will be quite all right. Tony has 13 Winston Cup wins in a little over three years on the circuit, including a win two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
   He stormed into the series in 1999, setting a rookie record by winning three races and taking Rookie of the Year honors. He followed that up with a series-leading six wins in 2000, and was second in Winston Cup points last season.
   He has always stated that Bristol Motor Speedway is his favorite track and won the last Winston Cup event here back in August. It's no surprise even though he's bruised from Sunday's accident, he plans on running all 500 laps this Sunday.
   "I don't feel good, I can tell you that," said Stewart. "This is one place that is physically demanding. You don't have time to rest on the straightaways. You're working 500 laps non-stop, but as long as my arms and legs move fine, they could duct tape me in the car and I'll be fine."