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Tony Award
Mark Bechtel
November 18, 2002
The Winston Cup gets some long-overdue final-weekend drama, with Tony Stewart in the driver's seat
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November 18, 2002

Tony Award

The Winston Cup gets some long-overdue final-weekend drama, with Tony Stewart in the driver's seat

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If Tony Stewart is reading this, we have one question for him: Why are you reading this? After finishing eighth in the season's penultimate race in Phoenix on Sunday, Stewart is thisclose to his first Winston Cup title. Jeff Gordon, who has won four championships, had one piece of advice for Stewart heading into this week's race in Homestead, Fla., the first finale in five years to determine the champion. "If I were Tony, I wouldn't open up a paper, I wouldn't watch a TV," says Gordon. "I'd go away, maybe spend some time with my team, then go to Homestead and just run my race."

While his fiery temperament has never been considered a strength, Stewart has shown he can handle pressure. Since the disastrous August weekend in Indianapolis when he punched a photographer after finishing 12th and dropping to seventh in the standings, Stewart has been a model of consistency on the track. In the 14 races since the Brickyard 400, he has finished in the top five seven times and made up 300 points in the championship standings.

Don't count on a Stewart meltdown at Homestead. There have been three Winston Cup races at the 1.5-mile track, and Stewart has won two of them. In the other, in 2001, he led the most laps and was cruising until late-race tire problems and a penalty for cutting across the grass into the pits relegated him to 19th place. Even if the second-place driver, Mark Martin, picks up the maximum 185 points on Sunday, Stewart only has to finish 22nd to win the title (chart, left). "I don't think you're going to outrun him good enough at Homestead to close that gap," says Gordon.

Stewart did survive a scare in Phoenix, narrowly avoiding a pileup on Lap 133 with a skillful zag to the inside after Robby Gordon, who was running directly in front of him, got into the back of Scott Wimmer's car. After the race, which was won by Matt Kenseth, Stewart had a few choice words for Gordon. "His helmet must be four sizes too small, because he doesn't use his head," Stewart said. "He does some really stupid stuff out there that about cost us an opportunity to run for a championship."

And therein lies the biggest threat to Stewart's title hopes. While the wreck involving Gordon and Wimmer was one of only three in last week's race, Stewart can't bank on a trouble-free day at Homestead. The track is relatively flat and has just one racing groove, which makes passing very difficult. "[ Phoenix] is a tough track to pass on," says Jeff Gordon, "but at least you've got an outside groove. At Homestead you pretty much have the apron. When it's tough to pass, you see more problems because guys get frustrated and start using their bumpers."

Of this you can be certain: Stewart will be just as aggressive at Homestead as he has been all year. After the Phoenix race, with a rare smile showing through his trademark race-day five o'clock shadow, he said, "I think we can win at Homestead. That's how I want to finish my year."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]