CONCORD, N.C. -- From the moment he climbed out of his second race car in one day Sunday, Tony Stewart was interested mostly in retribution.
The fact he had continued to improve his place in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series points race during the Coca-Cola 600 didn't seem as important as proving his critics wrong.
To him, it all seemed so easy. To others, it seem ed so unnecessary. But to everyone, it seemed so incredible.
Stewart made himself an easy target. Two races in the same day gave him twice as many chances to screw up. It seemed like an egotistical joy ride gone spastic: Running 500 miles at the Indianapolis 500, then flying 450 miles in time for a 600-mile main event at the Lowe's Motor Speedway.
It was easy to say Stewart was starved for attention, even to the point where he was willing to endanger the safety of fellow competitors with his high-speed version of Marathon Man.
But it was hard for any of us to see the true reasoning behind his madness. The passion to race, not to be recognized, is what really fuels him. His motivation wasn't power and glory. It was the thrill of the chase, the smell of burning octane and the deafening drone of a race engine that made Tony Stewart tick.
We've had it so wrong for so long. Beyond the occasional tantrums is a very real desire to drive a race car. Beyond the life style none of us could ever understand is a passion to run in the fast lane.
His zeal for racing was never more apparent than during the final 30 laps of the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. He worked his orange-and-white Pontiac high and low, making passes in a frenzied stretch drive that was pure electricity. His senses were never better as his drive in crunch time earned him a third-place finish.
Stewart was the fastest driver on the speedway in the final 50 miles. Not bad for a man who did a 500-mile warm-up earlier in the day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
''Is there a dirt track with an A-main event around?'' Stewart said. ''I'm ready. I'm really pumped up.
''All those people who had doubts, who said we would endanger people are a bunch of idiots.''
All right, he's still not a saint. But he's not the maniac some envisioned, either. And most important, his intentions were honorable, not selfish.
Stewart finished sixth at Indianapolis. He led with 45 laps to go when he made a pit stop under caution. Changes made to his open-wheeled car sent him in the wrong direction in the final segment of green flag racing and dropped him far behind the lead pack. When that race was over, he didn't pout. He got ready to race again.
When he got to the Lowe's Motor Speedway, he was skittish. In fact, he spun his car out on the second lap.
By mid-race, he was up to 12th. By the end of the race, he was finding his stride while others were squeezing the final gasps of hope from their collective second winds.
Stewart worked out a deal with his IndyCar team, his stock car team and his IndyCar sponsor to benefit Kyle Petty's Victory Junction Gang, a camp for critically ill children. Chip Ganassi Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Target each donated $100 for every lap Stewart completed Sunday. Stewart sweetened the deal by putting $100 of his own money on the line, as well.
There were 600 laps available, and Stewart completed every one of them. The check to the Victory Junction Gang will be at least $240,000.
A worthy charity got a much-needed lift Sunday. So did a young driver's reputation. A pair of worthy causes, indeed.
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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