Stewart dealing with championship pressures

Stewart dealing with championship pressures

Tony Stewart seems relaxed and ready to deal with the pressures of having to place 22nd or better this weekend to solidify his championship dreams. Four-time Winston cup champion, Jeff Gordon, provided Stewart with his best advice last week, ...

Tony Stewart seems relaxed and ready to deal with the pressures of having to place 22nd or better this weekend to solidify his championship dreams.

Four-time Winston cup champion, Jeff Gordon, provided Stewart with his best advice last week, "Isolate yourself. Don't turn on the TV, don't read the newspapers."

Stewart has been trying to do just that, remain out of the fracas, and not listen to the media critiques of what may or may not happen.

Tony Stewart.
Photo by Greg Gage.

"I quit reading the papers a long time ago," said Stewart. "You know I watch a little bit of the TV, but for the most part just a learn to do my own thing, and do what makes me happy and go racing. And that's what I enjoy doing on the weekends, is racing. So, we'll concentrate more on the racing aspect of it and not worry about the other stuff."

If Stewart has learned anything this year, it is to find the ability to shut out the dialogue from outside sources and focus on the #20 Joe Gibbs Pontiac. "Concentrate on the race team and the rest of it just doesn't seem to matter," commented Stewart. "That's the number one thing; the biggest thing is my race team is my family. Spending time concentrating on the car and the team has been more important than dealing with all the other outside distractions."

Stewart's rocky battle with the media remains intact. It is no surprise that he is often surly at the media's portrayal of him, and the questioning of his fitness to be a good champion.

"Last time I checked I was running for a point championship, I don't think I am running for political office," Tony commented when asked how he will meet his duties if crowned Winston cup champion. "I'm sure there's obligations that require our time, but as far as that's concerned I'm not trying to do anything but race for a points championship, that is strictly off what you do on the racetrack."

"Maybe there is more to it than that, I don't know, but the last time I checked its 36 races and whoever gets the most points in 36 races is the champion. It's not an elected office; you know I haven't been told about 'responsibilities.' So, you know if everyone's going to make it a lot more complicated than that, I am going to be pretty disappointed to be perfectly honest."

The unfortunate reality, however, is that there are responsibilities that go with the championship title. There are media and sponsor commitments that increase exponentially, and maybe more importantly a long-standing tradition of how a Winston cup champion carries himself during his championship season.

Stewart remains confident that he can handle the pressures of the title, "There are a lot of things that I still don't understand, and there's a lot of things that I still don't agree with but there's somebody else that does understand it and somebody else that does see the bigger picture then what I do a lot of times. With that, things do become a lot more clear. Like I said, I'm a simple person, to me its about driving the race car and trying to win races."

Stewart's relationship with teammate Bobby Labonte and car owner Joe Gibbs have offered him the most support in the last few weeks. Gibbs has tried to counsel his young driver all season long on his interaction with fans and media. "During or around the race weekend he pretty much wears his emotions on his sleeve," said car owner Joe Gibbs "He can get caught up and step over the line in some cases."

Gibbs realizes how different this championship and champion will be as compared to his 2000 victory with Bobby Labonte.

"Bobby no matter how bad it gets is able somehow to compose himself and go ballistic in the hauler but not do it in public," said Gibbs. "I think that the difference there is that Tony, I think that maybe it's a product of racing in a lot of different series. Racing one car one night, one the next, one here one there. It's always been I'll say whatever I want and get out of there and I am gone, well in Winston Cup there's more to it than that. Obviously a couple of times, he has stepped over the line, but I think he has gotten better at it."

All in all, the #20 Joe Gibbs Pontiac team isn't counting their chickens before they are hatched; this weekend is just another race, and they are approaching it as they would any other event weekend. "We're just going to take it one day at a time," mused crew chief Greg Zipadelli. "We are going to continue to do the things that got us where we are at, and head to Homestead and honestly truly try and win that race."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart