HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- If he stays out of trouble long enough, Tony Stewart can cement his reputation as one of NASCAR's biggest stars by wrapping up his first Winston Cup championship Sunday.
Stewart needs to finish 22nd or better in the season-ending Ford 400 to shut the door on second-place Mark Martin, a three-time series runner-up. Martin's cause was hurt Saturday, when his appeal of a 25-point penalty was rejected.
But even on the brink of Stewart's biggest moment in the sport, he couldn't avoid a dustup. A photographer accused Stewart of shoving him out of the way with a forearm as the driver walked from the garage to his team hauler after Saturday's final practice. NASCAR was investigating.
Stewart already was on probation for the rest of this season for punching a photographer after the Brickyard 400 in August. That punch also cost him $60,000 in fines.
Some who witnessed Saturday's collision said it appeared accidental. The person involved, photographer Rusty Jarrett, who works for national photo service Getty Images, didn't see it that way.
''He came out of the garage, raised his arm and put a body block on me,'' Jarrett said. ''I went to (NASCAR president) Mike Helton and asked him why (Stewart) would do that.''
Helton, Winston Cup director John Darby and NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter met with Jarrett, Stewart and car-owner Jim Gibbs for 30 minutes after the track closed.
''Everybody left there happy,'' Hunter said. ''Rusty accepted an apology from Tony. Tony said it was an accident. They shook hands.''
Hunter also said NASCAR considered it ''a closed issue.''
If Stewart can avoid more off-track problems, the spotlight will be on the title battle on the 1 1/2-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway oval.
Stewart wouldn't comment about Saturday's off-track trouble.
He did say: ''This is probably one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life, and not only running for the championship, but just everything we've had to go through this year.''
The garage collision notwithstanding, Stewart said, ''I'm probably about as relaxed as I've ever been in this situation. I'm going out to try to win the race. That's how we got in this position in the points and that's what we're going to do again in race 36 of 36 -- no difference.''
Martin has come tantalizingly close to winning the championship before without getting it done. Sunday is likely to provide another disappointment. Martin goes into the race trailing Stewart by 89 points.
''Miracles do happen sometimes and it's not over yet,'' said Martin, who narrowly avoided disaster when he sideswiped the car driven by Derrike Cope during Saturday's final practice session.
''The car in front of me was passing the 49 car (Cope) and I went with him, so we rubbed a little bit,'' Martin said. ''I got sideways. It didn't damage the car at all, and it was a misjudgment on my part.''
In 1990, Martin went into the last race of the season six points behind Dale Earnhardt and lost the title by 26. Martin had been docked 46 points for an illegal carburetor spacer found on his Roush Racing Ford after a victory in the second race that season.
This season, he lost 25 points after NASCAR discovered an unapproved spring on his car after a race this month.
His team appealed, arguing that the infraction was not intentional and did not affect the car's performance. A three-man appeal panel let the penalty stand.
''If something was to happen tomorrow and we were to wind up within 24 points of Tony and we hadn't appealed, we could never forgive ourselves when we had such a great case,'' Martin said.
There was no controversy or suspense in Martin's other two runner-up finishes, winding up 444 points behind Earnhardt in 1994 and 364 behind Jeff Gordon in 1998.
In 1997, Martin went into the final race in a three-way fight with Gordon and Dale Jarrett. Jarrett and Martin were 87 and 77 points behind Gordon, respectively.
Gordon needed only to finish 18th or better to clinch the title. He barely got it done, finishing 17th and beating Jarrett by 14 points and Martin by 29 in the closest three-way finish in NASCAR history.
''I couldn't think of a better guy to come down to this battle with. But no matter what happens tomorrow, if Mark pulled this off I'll be one of the first people to congratulate him,'' Stewart said.
''And, if we get lucky enough to win this thing, it will be a very nice way to end a very long and probably the most difficult season of my career.''
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