?As Tony Stewart ran the last few laps in Sunday's season finale, wrapping up his first Winston Cup title, the topic of conversation in the TV broadcast booth was the same one that had been churned over ad nauseam in the six weeks since the 31-year-old first took the lead in the standings: What kind of champion will Stewart make? Next month Stewart will hit the talk-show circuit on a NASCAR-mandated goodwill tour, and well, Stewart—best known to casual sports fans as the guy who punched a photographer at the Brickyard in August—doesn't always ooze goodwill. "If the [drivers] before him had treated the people as he treats them today, then there wouldn't be no Tony Stewart running Winston Cup, because there wouldn't be no Winston Cup," Richard Petty told USA Today last week. Stick Stewart on a talk-show couch, people seem to think, and he'll tell Kelly Ripa she looks fat, then take a swing at Regis.
The King makes a valid point, but by being asked to defend his future behavior countless times in recent weeks, Stewart has been given a raw deal. Cut the champ some slack. Stewart is a classic hothead—get in his face as he's getting out of his car, and you'll get snapped at or shoved. But put him in a situation where he can use his head wisely, and Stewart can shine. In a roomful of cameras on the day before the finale, without being asked, he launched into a moving tribute to Mark Martin, the four-time runner-up whom he nosed out for the championship. "He is one of my heroes in the Winston Cup Series, so I couldn't think of a better guy to come down to this battle with," said Stewart. His words were sincere, but even if they weren't, it was still just the kind of sound bite Regis will eat up.