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Jeff MacGregor
October 21, 2002
There's nothing on the track that NASCAR points leader Tony Stewart can't handle—except himself
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October 21, 2002

Road Rage

There's nothing on the track that NASCAR points leader Tony Stewart can't handle—except himself

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"I would say a disaster...." He laughed.

Do you need to be a less interesting interview?

"Yes, which is 100 percent totally unfair to the race fans. I think it's cheating them out of knowing who we are. What you learn is you're better off just trying to be as generic as possible."

So learning the rules out here is important?

" NASCAR is a traveling city—it has its own mayor, it has its own courthouse, it has its own jail. And the sooner you learn to accept the laws, the sooner you become happy"

A few hours later the night race at Bristol began. The track has been compared to everything from a bullring to a toilet bowl, but perhaps it most closely resembles the worlds' largest roulette wheel. It was a very bad night for Stewart, and his number didn't come up. He finished 24th.

At Darlington a week after that he was eighth, and then the tour traveled to Richmond, where a story broke on the wires that Stewart was being investigated on a charge of misdemeanor assault by the Sullivan County, Tenn., sheriff's office. A West Virginia woman claimed that after the race at Bristol, Stewart shoved her while moving through the pit area. It was said that the incident had been witnessed by a deputy.

That Saturday there were a couple of press conferences in which Joe Gibbs and NASCAR both asked that no one jump to any conclusions and said, none too emphatically, that they supported Tony Stewart.

At the prerace drivers' meeting at Richmond that night, Dale Jarrett rose and said, "I've talked to a lot of these guys in this room, Tony, and you're a big reason all these fans are filling the stands every week. You've got all our support, and we'll do everything we can to help keep you in this sport. Keep your head up." Stewart finished 30th. The Sullivan County grand jury chose to take no action on the charges on Sept. 24.

In Loudon, N.H., just before the race there, a local paper printed a story in which a New Hampshire International Speedway EMT claimed to have been punched by Stewart. The incident was said to have occurred during the July race when the EMT was helping Stewart from his wrecked car. However, by Sunday, the networks had turned up footage which clearly showed that Stewart had done nothing more than bat the man's hand away as he crowded in on him trying, perhaps a little too hard, to help. The piling on had begun. And true to the wild swings of his season, Stewart finished the race third. On his way to Delaware for the next race he was fourth in the championship standings, only 59 points behind the leader in the tightest race in history. He finished fifth. Then eighth at Kansas. Second at Talladega to take the overall points lead for the first time in his career. And in the gathering dark at Charlotte on Sunday he finished third, further extending his lead for the championship in this strange and angry season, and as reporters and photographers charged his car, he smiled a tired smile and answered every tired question he was asked. Success forgives, or at least forgets, almost everything. Tony Stewart thinks he has a good chance to win it all. At tracks across America, you can buy a T-shirt. that says TONY, PLEASE DON'T HIT ME.

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