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Softer Stewart ready for new season to start

Unlike some of his rivals, Tony Stewart stayed out of the headlines during NASCAR's off-season.

February 04, 2007|From the Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart didn't crash a race car, fall from a golf cart or announce pending fatherhood during the off-season.

No, the two-time NASCAR champion let his Nextel Cup rivals grab all the headlines, choosing instead to fly way under the radar during his brief winter break.

Stewart used his time to work on his race teams and put the finishing touches on a new shop in Indiana. He continued improvements at Eldora Speedway and the other two race tracks he owns, and settled into his new gig as weekly host of his own Sirius Satellite Radio show.

The end result? A kinder, gentler, media-friendly Stewart?

Not so fast, his car owner cautioned.

"He's fooling you," Joe Gibbs joked. "He'll turn on you in a heartbeat, that's what I found. You never trust Tony -- Tony goes pretty good as long as it's all going Tony's way. Just don't ever say 'No,' and you'll get along good with Tony."

Joking aside, the softer side of Stewart is slowly creeping through as he prepares for the 2007 season and a run at this third Nextel Cup title. Shut out of NASCAR's Chase for the championship last season, Stewart wound up a career-worst 11th in the final standings.

He's still sarcastic and easily irritated -- and he was both during a brief interview session earlier this week in Las Vegas -- but after eight seasons on auto racing's biggest stage, NASCAR's bad boy is learning how to chill out just a bit.

While Greg Biffle crashed in Las Vegas, Jimmie Johnson broke his wrist while horsing around in a golf tournament and Jeff Gordon revealed he's expecting his first child, Stewart did his own thing far away from the spotlight.

"We've been very, very busy this winter. I just did stuff that I am supposed to be doing at home," he said. "Just because we didn't break something doesn't mean we weren't doing stuff."

Much of Stewart's busywork focused on the life he's developing for when his driving days are over.

That includes fielding cars this year for Levi Jones and Tracy Hines in USAC's Sprint and Midget divisions, and a World of Outlaws car for Paul McMahan. Team ownership requires a state-of-the-art facility, which Tony Stewart Racing now has in a 27,000-square foot shop in Brownsburg, Ind.

Stewart also found time to attend to his growing stable of race tracks. Although he owns famed Eldora outright, he's also a partner at Paducah (Ky.) Speedway and Macon (Ill.) Speedway.

And, he squeezed in a little competition, winning the two biggest January races on the midget circuit -- the Rumble in Fort Wayne, Ind., and the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. The Chili win was his second in the "Super Bowl of Midget Racing," and he holds the victories in high regard.

"Absolutely, most definitely, 100 percent," Stewart replied when asked if the Chili Bowl equals a Cup title.

"You are racing against 282 entries, a record number, the best midget drivers from the East Coast to the West Coast and Australia. You get the best of the business in dirt-track racing who come to one place for the week and battle it out to see who can come out on top."

It was Stewart in the end, proving just what a unique talent the 35-year-old driver is. To this day, he remains the rare talent able to win in anything on wheels.

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