"Nervous?" ¬∂ Tony Stewart poses the question to three
white-knuckled passengers in his Chevy Impala rental, mischief
in his big brown eyes. It's 24 hours before the start of
Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.,
and Stewart is on his way to an event hosted by his sponsor,
The Home Depot, in Akron, Ohio, where he'll press the flesh,
smile for the cameras, and kiss babies like a seasoned
politician. But right now Stewart, the man who's seemingly been
involved in more accidents this season than any other driver,
the guy who has thrown the most infamous punch in NASCAR in
2004, is fixin' to do what he does best: accelerate the
heartbeat of everyone in his presence.
"You know," Stewart says as he pulls out of a parking lot at
Pocono, "maybe you should be nervous, because it's been said that
I'm a little out of control when I drive."
He giggles as he zooms into the misty afternoon. To demonstrate
his freakish car-handling skills during the 40-minute ride to the
airport, he performs a few controlled slides on an empty road at
40 miles per hour. It's nearly enough to cause his passengers to
lose their lunch.
For the past two months reporters have been asking other Nextel
Cup drivers that very question: Does Tony Stewart make you
nervous? This year the 33-year-old Stewart, who's currently fifth
in the points chase, has incurred the wrath of virtually every
other race team. "There's a fine line between being in control
and out of control, and Tony occasionally crosses it," says one
Cup driver. "I wouldn't say he's a time bomb, but he's something
The most recent display of Stewart's explosiveness came on June
27 in Sonoma, Calif. Upset with rookie Brian Vickers, who had
given him the one-fingered salute during the race, Stewart
charged into Vickers's garage afterward and launched a profane
tirade. When Vickers laughed at him, Stewart hit him in the chest
with an open palm, knocking the wind out of him before the
rookie's crew pulled Stewart away.
NASCAR fined Stewart $50,000, docked him 25 points and placed him
on probation until Aug. 18. Vickers downplayed the incident, but
other drivers have been less charitable. Jamie McMurray called
Stewart "an idiot" and highly respected veteran Rusty Wallace has
said he wanted to "whip his rear end." After Kasey Kahne was
involved in a wreck with Stewart at Chicagoland Speedway on July
11, Kahne's car owner, Ray Evernham, told reporters that he'd
"like to have 10 minutes with Tony Stewart and handle [him]
On some occasions Stewart--who on Sunday wrecked on Lap 108, his
seventh crash of the season, triggering a roar of jubilation from
the crowd of 90,000, en route to finishing 35th--is wrongly
blamed. The bad blood between him and Evernham, for example, was
caused by a midrace restart in which Stewart pushed Kahne's Dodge
into the wall. At first glance the wreck appeared to be Stewart's
fault. However, Kahne admits that he had trouble accelerating on
the restart and was moving slowly, which caught Stewart by
surprise. After Stewart wrapped his arm around Evernham in the
garage at Pocono last Friday and explained his side of the story,
the two shook hands and smiled at each other like old friends.
Members of Stewart's inner circle paint a portrait of a man with
two distinct personalities. There's Tempestuous Tony, the driver
blessed with electric talent but saddled with a combustible
temper. And there's Regular Dude Tony, the down-to-earth, highly
intelligent guy from a working-class neighborhood in Columbus,
"You don't always see it at the track, but Tony has a really good
heart," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of Stewart's closest friends
in racing. "At the track he's a competitor, just like I am, just
like my dad was. He really, really loves the sport."
During his off days Stewart will occasionally fly to any of a
number of small dirt tracks around the country. He will then race
under a fictitious name--one of his favorites is Luke Warmwater.
His obsession with racing is almost unmatched. "I'm not just the
person that everybody reads about in the media," says Stewart.
He's reclining in a seat on his Learjet, looking out over central
Pennsylvania at 20,000 feet. "But I know I've caused a lot of my
own headaches. I've made my bed, and I'm sleeping in it."
Moments later Stewart closes his eyes and slips into dreamland.
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF TNT WITH A BANG Stewart's crash at Pocono on Sunday (top left) drewcheers from the crowd and relegated him to 35th place.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES