Tony Stewart poses the question to three white-knuckled passengers in his Chevy Impala rental, mischief in his big brown eyes. It's 24 hours before the start of Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., and Stewart is on his way to an event hosted by his sponsor, The Home Depot, in Akron, Ohio, where he'll press the flesh, smile for the cameras, and kiss babies like a seasoned politician. But right now Stewart, the man who's seemingly been involved in more accidents this season than any other driver, the guy who has thrown the most infamous punch in NASCAR in 2004, is fixin' to do what he does best: accelerate the heartbeat of everyone in his presence.
"You know," Stewart says as he pulls out of a parking lot at Pocono, "maybe you should be nervous, because it's been said that I'm a little out of control when I drive."
He giggles as he zooms into the misty afternoon. To demonstrate his freakish car-handling skills during the 40-minute ride to the airport, he performs a few controlled slides on an empty road at 40 miles per hour. It's nearly enough to cause his passengers to lose their lunch.
For the past two months reporters have been asking other Nextel Cup drivers that very question: Does Tony Stewart make you nervous? This year the 33-year-old Stewart, who's currently fifth in the points chase, has incurred the wrath of virtually every other race team. "There's a fine line between being in control and out of control, and Tony occasionally crosses it," says one Cup driver. "I wouldn't say he's a time bomb, but he's something close."
The most recent display of Stewart's explosiveness came on June 27 in Sonoma, Calif. Upset with rookie Brian Vickers, who had given him the one-fingered salute during the race, Stewart charged into Vickers's garage afterward and launched a profane tirade. When Vickers laughed at him, Stewart hit him in the chest with an open palm, knocking the wind out of him before the rookie's crew pulled Stewart away.
NASCAR fined Stewart $50,000, docked him 25 points and placed him on probation until Aug. 18. Vickers downplayed the incident, but other drivers have been less charitable. Jamie McMurray called Stewart "an idiot" and highly respected veteran Rusty Wallace has said he wanted to "whip his rear end." After Kasey Kahne was involved in a wreck with Stewart at Chicagoland Speedway on July 11, Kahne's car owner, Ray Evernham, told reporters that he'd "like to have 10 minutes with Tony Stewart and handle [him] myself."
On some occasions Stewart—who on Sunday wrecked on Lap 108, his seventh crash of the season, triggering a roar of jubilation from the crowd of 90,000, en route to finishing 35th—is wrongly blamed. The bad blood between him and Evernham, for example, was caused by a midrace restart in which Stewart pushed Kahne's Dodge into the wall. At first glance the wreck appeared to be Stewart's fault. However, Kahne admits that he had trouble accelerating on the restart and was moving slowly, which caught Stewart by surprise. After Stewart wrapped his arm around Evernham in the garage at Pocono last Friday and explained his side of the story, the two shook hands and smiled at each other like old friends.
Members of Stewart's inner circle paint a portrait of a man with two distinct personalities. There's Tempestuous Tony, the driver blessed with electric talent but saddled with a combustible temper. And there's Regular Dude Tony, the down-to-earth, highly intelligent guy from a working-class neighborhood in Columbus, Ind.