NEW YORK -- The people that invited Tony Stewart to New York last week certainly made it worth his while. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., along with other sponsors of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, handed Stewart a check for more than $1.5 million in season-ending bonuses and awards.
And yet he was unhappy.
Instead of using New York as a celebratory springboard to the off-season, the temperamental driver used it as a platform to talk of the ills of stock-car racing.
Although bonuses and awards pushed his season earnings to the $5 million level, the driver who finished second in the point standings found the setting for the NASCAR Awards Banquet to be better for another rant. Even during his acceptance speech at the posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, he could not resist the oppor tunity to take a shot at NASCAR and its rule to mandate head-and-neck support systems. As he stood at the podium, he removed his coat and was wearing one of the restraints, the Hutchens Device.
Off stage, he criticized the season and the demands of being one of the top drivers. He blasted the sanctioning body, even referring to them as God in the red trailer. And even more telling was his dislike for a profession that's robbed him of any degree of normalcy.
Other drivers rolled their eyes in disbelief, some probably envious of the courage it took to tell it like it is. Most of what Stewart talks about is on the mark. The way he does it, however, makes many run for cover.
To better understand the world according to Tony Stewart, it's best to give him a topic and let the rambling begin. For example:
On finishing second in the Winston Cup Championship: ''It was a bad epi sode of the Twilight Zone. I don't think it was a successful year. To sit here and say we were second in the points, I don't know how we got here. In the last 10 races, yeah, we were consistent and had some good finishes. For the most, I don't think it was a successful year compared to last year. I thought we ran better last year. We struggled this year. We not only struggled on the track but off the track with the politics of the sport.''
On trying to live a normal life during the two-month off-season: ''I know I've never (had a normal life). I'm relying on my girlfriend to show me what a normal life is. She's strictly in charge between now and February, which sounds like a lot of time. But if you look at my schedule right now, there's 14 or 16 days where we can a half-week's vacation.
''We're driving in the 24 hours this year; we're testing (the Winston Cup car) at Daytona. It's that, it's photo shoots, it's media obligations and other obligations that we have that didn't stop when we finished the race at Loudon (N.H.).''
His outlook for next season: ''I'm not looking for next year. I'm looking to take some time off. I don't want to see a race car; I don't want to think about a race car. When I get to January, I don't want to see an orange, black and white race car for another couple weeks. I want to do some different things. I want to do some stuff I haven't done. I've always driven different kinds of race cars to get away for relaxation, and that's what I want to do in January. It's not a career change. Believe me, I'm not looking to make a career change.
"My fun meter has been pegged for a month-and-a-half now. After Loudon, I still flew to Las Vegas to race a Sprint car on Saturday. I've just had my fill of Winston Cup racing. I'm just ready to do something different.
''You look at some many things this year and you say 'what if, what if, what if. What if that didn't happen? What if that happened?' The truth is, it is what it is. You end up where you end up (in the point standings). We can sit there and talk about improving, but there's a lot of variables out there that we can't control.''
On the commitments away from the track, including the Awards Banquet: ''We had to be here (in New York) for two days, and that's two more days out of my schedule that I'd much rather be at home. I would like to be home more. I'm not saying it out of spite. We worked really hard this year to plan most of my appearances in the first half of the year so when we got in that 20-week stretch of races I'd have plenty of time off. When we got to the halfway point of the season, I realized I had just as many commitments in the second half as I did in the first, and that was a very disappointing reality check for me. We weren't as far along as I thought we'd be.
''Trust me, I don't want to be in New York for two days. I want to be home. I want to spend time with my family, not sitting here in a chair talking to a bunch of reporters. We do that 38 weeks a year. What more can you ask me?''
That pretty much covers it until February.
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