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One of NASCAR's most controversial drivers could become its top star

Leading role

Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2002

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The only thing smooth about Tony Stewart is the way he wins championships.

There are so many rough edges and contradictory emotions it's often difficult to find a balance between his success and the baggage that comes with it.

A NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship is a probable conclusion Sunday for Stewart, and it will end a season of curious rants, criminal allegations, paranoia and apologies.

For months he's talked of crawling under a rock in the off-season and hiding from the public. He loves to drive but hates most of the responsibilities that come with the job. He is a compassionate person who helps unsuspecting friends and causes, and yet he is extremely suspicious of everyone outside his inner circle.

His distrust for the media is fanatical; his displeasure for the notoriety that comes with the job is obsessive; his position as one of the sport's greatest stars is unsettling.

When asked last week whether he is looking more forward to ending a 36-week racing season as the possible champion or getting away from the media and the public's eye, Stewart merely said, ``Pass.''

He couldn't have said more if he took another 30 minutes to answer that question.

All Stewart has to do is finish no worse than 22nd in Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway or have Mark Martin finish out of the top 14 and the championship is his.

Then the real fun starts.

As the champion, Stewart will be expected to spend a week in New York in December doing interviews and being the center of the entire sport's attention.

Until a new champion is crowned a year from now, NASCAR and the series sponsor, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., will ask Stewart to take a leading role as the link between the sport and its fans.

The things that will be expected of Stewart are the very things he loathes.

``To be honest maybe I'm wrong in this the last time I checked, we were racing for a points championship,'' Stewart said as he prepared for the season finale. ``I don't think I'm running for political office. I'm sure there are obligations that require our time. I've not been told of any quote-unquote responsibilities. If everybody is going to make it a lot more complicated, I'm going to be pretty disappointed, to be perfectly honest.''

Stewart's emotions some of it real, most of it perceived have made him a target for the same kind of claims routinely made against former NBA star Charles Barkley. You can buy a T-shirt this weekend that says, ``Don't Hit Me Tony.''

Thirty years ago, Stewart's unpolished nature would have been a perfect fit. Corporate America and public relations firms changed all that, turning drivers into spokesmen, and some argue on Stewart's behalf that changes haven't always been for the best.

Right now Stewart is focused on winning the championship, and by doing so, he would become one of the most accomplished drivers in racing history. He's already won national titles in USAC midgets, quarter midgets and Silver Crown, as well as the Indy Racing League.

As Stewart accepts the rewards for another championship, maybe he also can learn to accept the public's appreciation for what he's accomplished. He's earned that much.

In return, hopefully he can appreciate the respect he's been entrusted with. The public's earned that much.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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