NASCAR: Tony’s in the thick of thing

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 21, 2011

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Tony Stewart picked ěidiotî as his word of the week at Chicagoland Speedway, where he used it to describe some of his rival racers and, kind of, himself.
The two-time NASCAR champion went into the first round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship certain that only seven drivers could contend for the title this year. The way Stewart figured it, he was among the five drivers who had no shot at winning the Chase.
Asked what would happen if he actually did win the title, Stewart confidently said, ěIíll declare Iím a total bumbling idiot.î
It seems now as if Smoke might have been sandbagging just a little bit.
Stewart picked up his first win of the season Monday at Chicagoland. The victory snapped a 32-race losing streak, extended his record to 13 consecutive years with at least one win, and, most important, rocketed him seven spots in the standings to second.
He goes to New Hampshire this weekend for Round 2 of the Chase trailing leader Kevin Harvick by seven points.
He still wanted to hedge his bets in a subdued postrace news conference, but was willing to admit his Stewart-Haas Racing team has picked it up a bit over the last three weeks. It would be an understatement to say he was terrible at Bristol, where he finished 28th, down three laps from the leaders.
But since then, he was third at Atlanta, seventh at Richmond and then won at Chicago.
ěIíve had a miserable year, but the last three weeks weíve really started coming into it,î Stewart said.
Thatís bad news for the competition since SHR dominated New Hampshire in July. He and teammate Ryan Newman combined to lead 167 of the 301 laps, and Newman led Stewart to a 1-2 sweep for SHR.
Statistics show heíll likely have another strong run Sunday: In 25 career starts at Loudon, Stewart has two wins, 15 top-10s and an average finish of 12.0.
But, Stewart will have to make sure heís not his own worst enemy. Heís been grumpy of late, and while the temperamental driverís mood swings donít usually raise eyebrows, his fixation on enforcing on-track etiquette could derail his title run.
It backfired on him earlier this season at Sonoma, where Brian Vickers intentionally wrecked Stewart as payback for Stewartís enforcement earlier in the race. At the time, Stewart insisted he was not going to back off.
ěIím going to stay the course on it,î Stewart said. ěIím just to the point where Iím fed up with some of the way some of these guys are racing each other. If we miss the Chase because of it, so be it. Thereís 42 guys out there, and they know how I race, they know what I expect. And I donít race them that way, I donít block guys and Iím not going to block guys. But if they block me, they will suffer the consequences.î
His rage flared up again Monday, when as the in-race reporter for ESPN, he referred to some ěidiotsî on the track and vowed to put an end to their lack of manners. Moments later, he bulldozed to the top of the track and stormed into the lead with an aggressive but impressive pass.
After, he held firm on his beliefs.
ěI donít think youíre going to see that etiquette anymore. I think itís just dying off,î Stewart said. ěI think guys donít care whether they make anybody mad on the race track or not. Theyíre just going to do what they want to do and theyíre only solely worried about themselves.
ěSo weíre going to start adopting that attitude. Iím tired of being a guy that gives a guy a break and then a guy doesnít do it in return or the guy puts you in a bad situation. Iím just going to adapt to their style.î
Getting caught up in petty on-track battles could potentially be his downfall. Stewartís run at Chicago put him in great shape to challenge for the championship ó if he doesnít get in his own way.