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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Stewart-Gordon Incident Brings a Smile to Some

August 25, 2000|SHAV GLICK

Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have banged their cars together twice in the last two Winston Cup races, and while team owners Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick probably aren't too pleased about it, Jim Hunter couldn't be happier.

Hunter is president of Darlington Raceway, the South Carolina track called "too tough to tame," where Stewart and Gordon will be racing next week in the Southern 500.

"Those two poured some jalapeno sauce on the vanilla ice cream," Hunter quipped.

Hunter, who grew up when racing was as much about fighting in the pits as drafting on the superspeedways, was there when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough knocked each other out of a Daytona 500 win and were joined by Donnie's brother, Bobby, for a free-for-all in the infield before NASCAR's first national TV audience.

And he remembers when the feud between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison became so heated that during a news conference for a race at Riverside, Petty sat on one side of a restaurant and Allison on the other--about 25 yards apart.

"A little extracurricular activity can't but help," Hunter said. "We don't want anybody hurt, but a little bammin' and frammin' is what NASCAR is all about. This is why it became so popular."

The Stewart-Gordon feud, which both are trying to downplay in today's nonconfrontational racing atmosphere, began two weeks ago on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y. The two were racing side by side on the second lap when Gordon tried to pass and Stewart crowded him into the guardrail. Gordon's Chevrolet suffered extensive damage, and he fell a lap down and finished 23rd.

After the race, with the two team transporters next to each other in the paddock, the usually polite and soft-spoken Gordon yelled, "Next time you get alongside me, I'll slam you into the wall the first chance I get."

Stewart, one of the feistiest drivers on the circuit, shouted at Gordon to "come over here and we'll talk about it." About that time, crewmen grabbed both of them and no punches were thrown.

"You're always telling me to take it easy on the first lap," Stewart screamed. "All I'm saying is make up your mind."

Interest in their spat heightened interest in last Sunday's Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway and the 170,000 fans weren't shortchanged when NASCAR's two brightest young drivers collided again.

Once again, Stewart took Gordon out, knocking his car into the wall and damaging the front end. This time, though, the usually brash Stewart took full responsibility and Gordon called it "just a racing accident."

Stewart was running second when his car got loose and touched leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car. After the brush, Stewart swerved and got sideways on the track, spinning into the oncoming Gordon.

"I just lost it," Stewart said. "We were racing hard. It was my fault."

This was quite a change from the Watkins Glen atmosphere.

Stewart, contrite after probably hearing from NASCAR officials who want the world to forget the pioneering days when feuds were part of the game, explained what happened a week earlier:

"I think when something like what happened at Watkins Glen two weeks ago occurs, people make such a big deal out of it because it doesn't happen that often. Hockey players get into fights and that's part of the sport. But basketball and baseball players occasionally get in fights too.

"Jeff and I didn't get in a fight. We had an argument. We had a disagreement. Granted, our language wasn't the greatest and I do apologize for that, but it seems like in this sport, since it is such a clean sport, any time something just a little different happens, it tends to get blown up pretty big."

Stewart also said that he and Gordon were together two days after the Watkins Glen incident, testing at Daytona.

"He came in and sat down at a meeting with me and said, 'Are you still mad at me?' and I said 'No,' because I wasn't. That's the truth. I still don't agree with what happened, but I'm not mad about it. You can't dwell on things like that in our sport and retain a competitive edge on everybody."

No, but a promoter like Hunter can dwell on it. And he hopes fans still are talking about it because he sees it as a big boost for ticket sales.

"You know what I'd like to do," Hunter said from his Darlington office. "My colleagues at Daytona won't like what I say, but my idea is if they tangle again, we put on a boxing match on the front straight. Have them get out of the cars, put on 16-ounce gloves and settle it before they go on to the next race."

Hunter estimates that 6,000 extra seats were sold last year after Dale Earnhardt bumped Terry Labonte out of the lead to win the previous week at Bristol.

"It wouldn't bother me at all if Stewart and Gordon had at it again Saturday night at Bristol," said Hunter, chortling at the thought. "It's drama. It's rehumanizing NASCAR. It's good for the sport."

And for the box office.

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