And the day was unspeakably hot. By noon the heat index shimmered near 100�, and the fans, all 250,000 of them, were red-faced and glassy-eyed and sweating in their seats or packed 20 deep around the fences. EMTs treated hundreds of them for heat exhaustion. Some of them fainted still clutching their autograph books.
Stewart ran well all afternoon, contending, but in the last 10 laps he mysteriously fell out of the lead pack and dropped from third to 12th. Maybe the car's setup—the arcane calculus balancing tires, trackbar, shocks and springs—went wrong somehow. Or maybe he just spit the bit. No one was sure, because Stewart, usually voluble, even chatty on his car radio, wasn't saying anything to his pit crew. Into the fraught silence of the 140� cockpit the crew radioed him to pull around to the garage area. NASCAR, as it sometimes does, had asked for a random engine inspection. He rolled the car slowly across the concrete apron between the garages, and toggled off the ignition, and the utter silence of the dead engine was more abrupt and shocking somehow than its noise. He was the first one back there, and for an instant, before the other cars came barking and drawling off the track behind him, there was a deep stillness. He unhitched the fretwork of safety harnesses that trapped his head, shrugged off the shoulder belts, levered off his helmet, dropped the side netting, tossed his gloves aside, pulled himself out the window and started walking back to the team trailer, leaving his car to the NASCAR officials, with their clipboards and their computers and their suspicions.
But then the postrace media mob surged into the garage, and Stewart was running ahead of it, and away from the recorders and notebooks and cameras it brandished like so many torches and pitchforks, across that hallowed concrete toward the trailer, only a few hundred feet to safety now, his face as white as hotel soap except for the dark smudges of exhaustion under each-dark eye. Keeping step with him was a heavy man with a still camera to his eye. Maybe he was crowding Stewart or maybe he said something to him. Stewart, still running, suddenly veered toward the man, lunged, and tried to claw the camera from the photographer's face. But the arm holding the camera was already coming down, the threat already seen swimming orange and angry in the viewfinder, and Stewart raked the air. His momentum carried him forward another step, and he pushed the photographer hard with the flat of his hand—caught him just where the meat of his chest tapers into his shoulder joint—and sent him staggering back. Then Stewart balled that same busy hand into a fist and made an awkward roundhouse swing and missed by the comic distance of a community theater stunt punch. Then—and this is what they laughed about and mimicked all week down in the engine shops and paint booths and front offices of NASCAR land (his truest punishment)—he straight-legged the air with a perfectly ineffectual schoolyard kick.
The consequences for Stewart were several and swift. Within days he was fined $10,000 by NASCAR and placed on probation again. He was also docked $50,000 by his sponsor. He was alternately pilloried in print as an oafish bully who should have been pulled from the car but got off too easy, or defended at length by those who thought the press was ill-mannered, invasive and had at last got its comeuppance. A few others, safely off the record, muttered that what Tony Stewart needed was simply to have his ass kicked. Following a couple of hellfire-and-brimstone prayer meetings with the NASCAR elders and the corporate deacons, Stewart agreed to start seeing an anger management specialist.
Remarkably, he won the next race, a week later at Watkins Glen. Or maybe it's not remarkable at all. Maybe Tony Stewart thrives on the constant swirl of agitations he seems to create for himself.
The week after that he finished second at Michigan. During those two weeks he had also been busy suffering public absolution by visiting the TV Stations of the Cross, the process in which you scourge yourself on television as often as you're asked to by a) admitting you have a problem, b) apologizing for the problem and c) announcing you've sought help for the problem. So by the time he rolled into Bristol on the weekend of Aug. 24, he looked spent and fretful.
Stewart is a compact man with black hair, bright, tired eyes and dough-pale skin. His voice is pitched like the middle register of a clarinet. Somehow he always looks as if he's two days past his last shave. He was hanging out a few hours before the night race with his girlfriend and some of the guys from his team. He didn't much want to talk about Indianapolis, but he made a genuine effort to answer other questions.
Are you a happy person?
"I would say probably not. Am I going to be? Yes. I love driving, I love being with the team, I'll love seeing 140,000 fans in the seats tonight. There are a lot of things that I don't like—some of them will change, and some of them won't—so it's just learning how to deal with it."
How is your relationship with the sporting press?