Stewart mastered the cars and the tracks and the competition over his next two seasons, certainly, winning six races in 2000 and finishing a dozen times in the top five. He banked more than $3.5 million in winnings and ended that year sixth in championship points. In 2001 he won three times, had 15 top five finishes, earned $4.9 million in prize money and finished second to Jeff Gordon in points. The media took him up with great enthusiasm.
And it was a disaster.
Now most folks in the NASCAR garage-mechanics, officials, drivers—will tell you that Tony Stewart is a decent guy. They'll tell you that he can be funny and charming and polite and smart. He knows that the world is an even bigger and more colorful place than the infield at Talladega. For sure, they say, he's one helluva driver, maybe the best on the track. But he can also be broody and hotheaded, they'll say. He runs a little tight, like a car that won't turn and wants to run into the wall. He is, in other words, flawed and fully human.
But in the media, from the beginning, it came out all wrong. The very things that make a good driver—the necessary sense of infallibility, the aggression, the lightning reactions, the boundless, bulletproof arrogance and the bone-deep unwillingness to concede an inch, even conversationally—worked against him. He was either unwilling or unable to come up with the pleasant, empty line of press-conference patter drivers use to protect themselves, e.g., "Feel good. Car ran good. Team's good. Taking 'em one race at a time. Thanks."
Instead his certainty often sounded like condescension, his humor played like sarcasm. But he still made good copy and within a year he had become the tour's necessary Bad Boy, a popular, exciting and temperamental winner who refused to ladle up the warmed-over corn in which most celebrity athletes specialize and on which beat writers routinely binge and purge. In his second season and for most of his third, the jittery symbiosis was kept in balance, although both parties were showing the strain. Even his advocates in the press were losing patience with Stewart, and he was tired of being interrogated and photographed every time he walked to the bathroom. Stewart admits he's claustrophobic, and his stresses were further compounded by the growing number of fans allowed access to the pit areas and garages, so that he was swarmed and set upon for autographs the second he walked out of his team trailer.
The tipping point came after a race in July of last year when Stewart, angered by what he thought was an unfair ruling by NASCAR officials, swatted the tape recorder out of a reporter's hand when approached for comment. He then kicked the recorder, and what was left of his tenuous relationship with the press, under a truck. He was fined $10,000 by NASCAR and put on probation for the balance of the season.
The 2002 season got off to an inauspicious start for Stewart when he blew an engine on the second lap of the Daytona 500, the season's first, and biggest, race. He finished 43rd. Since then he and his team have been a small boat on an angry ocean of ink.
The low point of his season, it was thought, was his homecoming race at Indianapolis in early August. He had never won there before, but a win at mystical Indy, at once a historic cathedral and his backyard track, in front of hundreds of thousands of fans and in front of his friends and family, could have righted his season. Instead he spent the long, hot weekend trying to shoot himself in the foot. He barely got it out of his mouth long enough to do so.
On Saturday morning, having won the pole position for the big race on Sunday, Stewart was interviewed at the brief press conference that is held every week for pole winners. He was asked how winning the pole made him feel. He was supposed to say, as drivers do, that it made him feel good. Perhaps real good. Instead he said that it didn't mean all that much, he'd won poles before, that he'd rather win the race on Sunday. A member of the press, persistent in the call-and-response nature of these weekly catechisms, reframed the question: Deviously, he was asked if maybe winning the pole didn't make him make feel, say, good? Ignoring the prompt, and the chance at a clean getaway, Stewart stood by his original, more complicated answer. Then calamity. Trying to communicate his low esteem for the pole perhaps, Stewart suggested, but in a manner not so humorous as to actually be funny, that the men and women of the assembled world media could take whatever poles might come to hand and insert them, bodily one imagines, wherever and however the men and women of the assembled world media might find it convenient to do so. The press conference drew to a very quiet conclusion not long after.
Still, the sun rose on Sunday morning.