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Where there’s ‘Smoke’ ...

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – I have always found Tony Stewart to be one of NASCAR’s most fascinating drivers.

He can be so good.

Stewart is a two-time champion at NASCAR’s highest level. He has also raced just about everything you can imagine on four wheels and won on all of it. Talk to people in the garage and they will tell you that Stewart may well be the most versatile driver in the planet. Even nearing age 40 – Stewart gets there this May – he remains a threat to end Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign of domination.

And he can be so bad.

Just when you think Stewart has curbed his legendary temper, here comes another incident like the one in Australia earlier this month. Stewart and the co-owner of an Australian track had some sort of physical altercation after a difference of opinion about how safe the track was that Stewart was set to compete on that night.

Stewart pronounced himself “ashamed about it” last week during testing at Daytona, then wouldn’t discuss it any further during the first day of the annual NASCAR media tour Monday. It’s quite possible that the saga isn’t over, depending on whether the track co-owner decides to file charges against Stewart.

But to dismiss Stewart as a hothead is too easy. He now regularly mentors NASCAR drivers in the garage who come to him to ask advice. And what does he say?

“Lots of times it’s teaching patience,” Stewart said Monday. “You can be the best guy out there. But if you don’t work with the other 42 guys, you still can’t win the race. They just won’t let it happen. So you have to learn how to work with others.”

In most conversations, Stewart comes off as smart and relaxed. He’s not married and has no children, but he has long been engaged to racing.

In his early years, Stewart drove a tow truck, was on call 24 hours a day and slept on a friend’s foldout couch as he pursued his dream.

Now he’s a multimillionaire, but he seems to invest most of his money in the sport. Stewart owns a dirt track in Eldora, Ohio. Even more notably, Stewart is starting in his third year as an owner-driver for Stewart-Haas racing.

Long viewed as something of a Peter Pan, Stewart has grown up a little. Although he jokes that his workout routine consists of changing the volume on his TV with his left hand and the channel on his right, in reality he looks closer to fit than he ever has.

He attributes this to changing his eating habits. Stewart used to sleep through breakfast and eat two large meals a day, and now he eats breakfast and four other smaller meals every day.

“I just wanted to feel better,” Stewart said. “I realized I’m not 20 anymore.”

All of that would make for a good “The-Mature-Tony-Stewart” kind of story, except for the incident in Australia. That sounds like the same old Stewart from 10 years ago. He knows that and has said he wishes he had dealt with it all differently.

Here’s part of what Stewart said about it last week: “I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it because I’m very embarrassed that I made it through a whole [five-week] trip and, the night before I come home, I get in an altercation with somebody. That really hasn’t happened for a while. I’m not at all the least bit proud of it. I’m ashamed about it.”

At least Stewart knows that he should be ashamed of such behavior. That’s evidence of some progress. I would guess the incident will ultimately cost Stewart in the wallet, as well as in more intangible ways.

So his nickname of “Smoke” continues to apply. Stewart is hard to catch, hard to define and sometimes hard to deal with. When it comes down to it, though, NASCAR is far better with him than without him.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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