Tony Stewart has been quicker with his words this year than he's been in his race car. The slower his Pontiac Grand Prix runs on race day, the faster he is to give an opinion.
Like all the motor mouths before him, Stewart now is learning the most important lesson of those who speak their minds: Some times you have to eat your words.
Stewart has criticized fans, NASCAR rules and everything else associated with his inability to be competitive in the first 12 races in the Winston Cup. Now he's backpedaling with excuses to minimize the damage.
''Sometimes I'm claustrophobic,'' he said.
Oh, yeah, that certainly ex plains why he called some fellow drivers ''fake'' because they're too scared to echo his complaints. That certainly explains why he said the sport isn't fun. That certainly explains why he has so much disdain for autograph seekers in the garage area.
Actually, Stewart makes some good points. The garage area is a work area and should be a safe haven from race fans who want pictures and autographs. The sport is governed tightly by a sanc tioning body that is quick to penalize free speech. The de mands of sponsor, race fans, media and the race schedule are too taxing.
After setting the record with a litany of complaints, Stewart want ed to make some adjustments to his tirade last week at the Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. It's a good thing Stewart's mouth, like his race car, has reverse gear.
Two weeks earlier, Stewart said this: ''It's too crazy and too busy here for my liking. It's getting to where it's not fun doing this anymore. The day that this isn't fun is the day I'm going to quit.''
The new and improved Stew art has since softened his tone.
''Do I plan on leaving Winston Cup? No,'' Stewart said. ''Am I hap py here? Yes. Am I frustrated about some things? Yes. But the No. 1 thing I want to stress is I do not believe in the position that I don't like the fans. I do love the fans.''
A year ago, he led 117 of 300 laps at the New Hampshire International Speedway but lost his chance to win by running out of gas two laps short of the finish line. When the race was over, he stormed from the raceway without talking to his team.
Three weeks ago at Rich mond, Va., he led 69 laps and ap peared on his way to a win. Dale Earnhardt Jr. bumped him on pit road with 37 laps to go a bump that resulted in a flat tire. After that race, he stormed through the garage area, sending fans, media and officials scurrying for safety. This time, however, NASCAR ordered him into their trailer for an explanation.
Stewart said his claustrophobia makes him feel the whole world is caving in on him. The garage area is packed with fans, many of whom beg for autographs while he's trying to work with the race team. He needed a police escort a year ago at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis after a fan hit him in the shoulder while demanding an autograph.
''I do think it's a good idea they are in the garage area,'' Stewart said. ''I think it gives them a very good opportunity to see what we go through on a daily basis, what crews have to go through, and they'll understand the sport a little better.
''Have I made mistakes in my personal life? Have I made mistakes at the racetrack? Absolut ely. We all do at one time or another.''
But few do it as fast as Tony Stewart.
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Car owner Joe Gibbs said his driver is a lot like some of the hot-tempered football players that took him to three Super Bowl Championships as a head football coach.
''We wish, and I wish, that some of the things that were said hadn't been said,'' Gibbs said. ''But that's part of life. Yes, he'll blow up and get in your face, but I'm absolutely convinced that his guy has one of the best hearts of anybody I've ever worked with from the standpoint of being a great competitor and wanting to win.''
Bit by bit, the frustrations have added up to one giant head ache. Two weeks ago, Stewart couldn't hold back any longer.
''Do I think it's crowded sometimes? Yes, because I'm not used to it. A lot has happened in the last year and a half to me a lot of things that when I signed up with Joe (Gibbs) and when I decided to come run Winston Cup that I thought I understood. I thought I understood everything that was going to happen and realize I knew so little about what was going to happen and what was going to change my life over a very short amount of time with the way things happened last year.''
Stewart also dispelled rumors that he was unhappy with the demands of sponsor Home Depot and with Joe Gibbs Racing.
''Am I angry with my sponsors? No,'' he said. ''I couldn't be happier with them. Am I happy with the race team and Joe Gibbs? Absolutely. I can't think of somebody better to drive for than Joe that gives me leadership, not only with what I do with the race team and in the race car and with the race shop, but what to do in my personal life, too.
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