Stewart set to defend BMS crown

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Fresh off his win at Watkins Glen this past Sunday, Tony Stewart was relaxed at the NASCAR Café in Johnson City on Tuesday night, signing autographs and meeting fans.
   "I do enjoy the autograph sessions," said the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac. "The more you do it, the more you enjoy it. The part that amazes me is that the first person here was at 8:30 (in the morning). I wouldn't stand in line at 8:30 to do anything, including get an autograph from somebody. It is overwhelming to see how long people are willing to wait just to spend five or ten seconds with you. I'm really appreciative that I do have fans like that."
   Sunday was a much-needed win for Stewart, but one that did entail controversy with his quick jump on the final restart. Still, a win is a win as Stewart discussed the series upcoming visit to Michigan's 2-mile super speedway this weekend. He goes into the Michigan race fourth in the NASCAR standings, 104 points behind leader Sterling Marlin and two points ahead of defending Winston Cup champ Jeff Gordon.
   "I'm excited," remarked Stewart. "We got another rules change and I don't what the effect of that is going to be until we get there. The hard thing about that is we don't have time to take the bodies to the wind tunnel and max the aero balance out from the front to the rear. We will do the best we can this week and see how many points we can get."
   Then the tour adds another twist to Stewart and the other title contenders next weekend when they come to Bristol, a place notorious for tearing up race cars. Stewart looks to make up some ground at BMS, where he is the defending race champion of the Sharpie 500.
   "It's still my favorite track on the circuit," said the runner-up in last year's championship standings. It's the one place I look forward to going to both times. The night race is my favorite race of the year. Particularly, when you start off each segment with new tires and the pressures are low. The cars bottom out and you see the sparks and everything. It's a pretty special race for us.
   "You don't hear anybody gripe about aero balance and horsepower. It's the one variable where you don't worry about politics and whose body style is better. Body styles don't have a thing to do about winning at Bristol. It's about mechanical balance and drivers and crews doing the best job. It's not about who has what. Everybody has the same opportunity to win at Bristol, no matter what manufacturer you have. It's a matter of getting the car hooked up to the race track and doing the best job for 500 laps."
   He says racing at Bristol puts the outcome more in the driver's hands.
   "That's probably why it's my favorite place," said Stewart. "You're not depending on other guys like in a restrictor-plate race. You're not worrying about aero balance. It's the one track on the circuit that is left, here and Martinsville, where you have an opportunity to race. It's not who had the best car in the wind tunnel.
   "The one thing I've learned in three and a half years in Winston Cup racing is that I don't worry about the rules. I don't make the rules and can't change the rules. Anytime I waste worrying about the rules is the time I should be making my race car handle."
   It's well documented Stewart's penchant for racing, as in 15 past few months, he's been in every type of car from a sprint car to an Indy Car to a dirt late model. A few months ago, he even traveled north of the border to compete in a CASCAR, the Canadian version of NASCAR, event where he finished behind fellow Winston Cup star Matt Kenseth.
   "It's kind of neat," said the former Indy Racing League champion. "Earlier this year, I got to go to Johnny Benson's track in Berlin, Michigan and run a late model on pavement. (Stewart won that event).
   "This week, I'm going to Dave Blaney's track and running a dirt modified. To go to some of my competitors in the Cup series' tracks is kind of neat. It's a great opportunity to race, where you don't worry about point standings. You don't worry about prize money. You just go race and have fun and do what you like to do."
   With the love Stewart shows for racing, the question was raised why he didn't field a Busch Series car.
   "Cause Joe (Gibbs) won't let me," Stewart replied. "After (teammate) Bobby (Labonte) got hurt at Darlington and broke his shoulder blade the year he won the championship, it almost took away him winning the championship. Joe really wants us to take care of ourselves and eliminate opportunities to get beat up.
   "If I get hurt Thursday night at Blaney's track, I have two days to recover. When we run the Busch race on a Friday night and run the Cup race on Saturday, it would be a little tougher."
   That versatility behind the wheel also brings up the subject of whether Stewart might be the next American driver to race in the Formula One series.
   "I've heard my name thrown around over there," commented Stewart, the only driver to win all three major USAC series championships in the same year. "I think it would be extremely difficult. I'm still trying to master the English language. I guarantee you I would have a tough time learning to speak foreign languages with those guys."
   He joked, "I know there is one sign we would all understand and know what each other means. We use it in the Cup series weekly and I'm sure they would understand it over there. That's probably the only communicating I could do with a lot of them."
   For now, he's glad to be the latest winner in the ultra-competitive Winston Cup Series, coming to Bristol Motor Speedway as one of the pre-race favorites.
   "I love going to Bristol," said the Columbus, Ind. driver. "Rules change, tires change, the one thing that doesn't change at Bristol is the excitement. This is the most sought after race ticket every year and that says something about the people around Bristol.
   "They know how to host a world-class race and they have something to be proud of. All the drivers look forward to coming here. It's the one time of the year we get to race and have the same opportunity as everyone else. The fans treat us good and the people in the area are very accommodating to the teams and the drivers and we all appreciate that."