ATLANTA -- It is hard to decide which is more unusual: the fact Tony Stewart is challenging for the Winston Cup Series championship so early in the season or the fact he's done it without any trips to the NASCAR hauler.
Stewart has been stealth-like in his approach to the sport that, for the most part, has been very unforgiving of his tantrums. And with his vowed code of silence has come a quieter charge in the standings, the kind of rally he mounts in the final two months.
The former Indy Racing League cham pion is very much in the middle of the points race, and his rally has come without all the familiar run-ins with fellow drivers or NASCAR officials. Fans who've waited for one of his emotional meltdowns have been forced to look elsewhere for controversy. His straight and narrow approach doesn't make for sensational headlines, but it brings, at long last, a small piece of tranquility.
Stewart has worked hard to avoid the limelight, and the trouble that comes with it. He avoids most post-race press conferences and generally spends most racing weekends holed up in the team transporter or in his Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix.
''Everybody says, 'kinder and gentler.' I'm not sure I'm kinder,'' Stewart said as he got ready for the third and final off weekend of the racing season. ''I'm just more reserved about what I say.
''You learn a lot that honesty is not necessarily the best policy in our sport anymore, as much as your parents try to teach you that. I'm not going to say they're wrong, by any means, because they weren't wrong until I became a Win ston Cup driver. I'm not sure that I'm kinder and gentler.''
The things that set Stewart off, the intrusive nature of the sport and the way NASCAR plays favorites with its san ctions, still make his blood boil. But he's learned to bite his lip and keep his mouth shut.
Stewart doesn't mind signing autographs at the right time and place. Two weeks ago at Michigan, for example, he signed autographs for nearly two hours at a local short track following a scheduled appearance.
Two years ago, he went into a rage after fans continued to hound him for autographs in the garage area.
Perhaps the biggest bomb, however, came when he criticized the growing demands of the sponsors and said other drivers felt the same way, although they were either too scared or too concerned with appeasing corporate America to say so.
While he's fifth heading into the Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway on July 6, he's only 88 points behind series leader Sterling Marlin. He carved 141 points from Marlin's advantage last week with a second-place finish at Sonoma, Calif.
''I'm always on attack,'' Stewart said.
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