ATLANTA -- When NASCAR required the use of a head-and-neck-restraint system for all drivers, the only angry voice came from Tony Stewart.
He now wears the Hutchens Device but openly admits he's put so much slack in the straps that are supposed to keep his neck from snapping during a crash that the device is ''not going to do its job.''
Defiant to the end, Stewart would rather fight than conform. He would rather complain than enjoy a template that's taken racing from the back streets of the South to America's Main Street.
He's bashed fans, the demands of sponsors and the sanctioning body. He's an unhappy driver on a crusade against all the responsibilities that come with driving a stock car on the billion-dollar circuit.
''I fight for what I believe in every week, that's why I'm not happy,'' he said. ''I won't stop fighting until I feel like it's good enough to be in a sport as high as it needs to be.''
Many believe Stewart represents a popular feeling inside the garage area from those who are too afraid to speak the truth. Others say he's merely boorish and immature. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Bill France Jr., NASCAR chairman, seems amused by Stewart's tantrums. He said the driver of the Home Depot Pontiac reminds him of a young, unbridled Dale Earnhardt. At the same time, he said it's time for Stewart to stop being so antagonistic.
What's needed, he said, is the same kind of summit meeting he called when Earnhardt and Geoffrey Bodine were at each other's throats every week, the same kind of summit portrayed in the Tom Cruse movie, Days of Thunder.
''I told them that NASCAR was here long before they were, and I expected it to be here long after they're gone,'' the son of the series founder said. ''We get along just as well with you as we do without you, and I think Dale finally woke up to that fact.''
Maybe Tony Stewart needs the same kind of wake-up call.
His car owner, Joe Gibbs, spends as much time defending his troubled driver as he does marveling at his skills. The former football coach now feels he might have been too protective.
''When you're dealing with different athletes and different guys, people deal with things in different ways,'' Gibbs said. ''I can be part of the blame here, because I've tried to work through this with Tony. I told him when you're upset like that after a race, the best thing to do is just go to the motorhome. Having said that, there have been times where the media has gotten upset with him because he wouldn't talk to them. But I try to tell all my guys that in professional sports, it's not a perfect world. And everybody's different. I don't want him to change his personality, but just be cautious at times.''
The depth of Stewart's frustration has sparked some concern, perhaps hope, that he soon might leave stock cars. After all, there's no required autograph sessions, busy garage areas and or legions of fans at weekly club races for the Sports Car Club of America.
Of course, he can't make a living at it, much less the $3 million-plus he makes at his current job.
''I've been unhappy for a year now,'' Stewart said. ''But I've talked with Joe, and I'm not doing anything drastic. I'm not quitting. I'm not leaving. I'm just unhappy with NASCAR. I think they do a lot of things wrong. But for every one thing they do wrong, they probably do five things right. But there are things that can be changed that aren't being changed right now.
''It's frustrating for me as a race driver. I'm 30 years old, and I've been racing for 23 years. All I ever wanted to do was get to this level. I got here and saw all the things that are wrong, and the attitudes about why they're not done different aren't the responses I want to hear from a professional organization. I think our sport has gone from seeing who had the best race team, the best race driver and who did the best job on Sunday, to what can we do to make a great show for TV and the fans in the stands. NASCAR didn't get here because they're stupid. But I think there's a lot of ways to make things better than they are.''
And he's not afraid to tell you.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org
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