Tony Stewart shows softer side

Stewart shows softer side in aftermath By Dave Rodman LOUDON, N.H. (July 10, 2000) For 10 years, Tony Stewart had measured much of his racing progress against one man. Beginning with his victory in Sunday's NASCAR Winston Cup Series...

Stewart shows softer side in aftermath
By Dave Rodman

LOUDON, N.H. (July 10, 2000) For 10 years, Tony Stewart had measured much of his racing progress against one man. Beginning with his victory in Sunday's NASCAR Winston Cup Series 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, Stewart plans to race in Kenny Irwin's memory.

"This whole weekend has been a long weekend -- I want to dedicate this win to Kenny Irwin," Stewart said Sunday, repeating a theme he'd begun on Friday following the death of Irwin, 30, of injuries suffered in a crash in the opening moments of practice. "We were teammates and I knew him and raced with him for the last nine years.

"He is part of the reason I got to Winston Cup. He made me become a better race car driver because I had to beat him every week. He was as tough as anybody around week-in and week-out no matter whether it was a Sprint Car, or a Silver Crown car or a Midget.

"He was the guy that I had to beat every week to win the race. He made me a better race car driver and probably got me ready to be a Winston Cup driver, to a certain degree. So I want to dedicate the win to him."

To a great degree, Stewart and Irwin had followed a parallel track to the top of motorsports, racing Midgets, Sprint Cars and USAC Coors Light Silver Bullet machines on a variety of Midwestern ovals. Their paths crossed often on the way, and of course, sparks were often raised.

But despite what the outer appearance of their relationship might have been, there was one constant, Stewart said even before he won his sixth NASCAR Winston Cup Series race in only his second season.

"We weren't always on the best terms with each other, but we always respected each other in a race car and what each other could do in a race car," Stewart said quietly. "We always had a lot of respect for one another."

Strangely enough, the signatory point of their 50-some-odd races together in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series came last year at Martinsville Speedway, a gritty short track where the two traded paint and spins several times before Irwin "finished" Stewart with a well-placed nudge going into Turn 1. Stewart, on foot, confronted Irwin's car rolling around the track under caution, flung his heat guards at it and tried to level a punch at Irwin through the window.

Irwin's death and that of Adam Petty eight weeks earlier after another crash in the same corner at NHIS made that very ancient history.

"It's just a wake-up call," Stewart said. "It's a reality check. I didn't know Adam that well, but I spoke with him many times. It was a different situation when it was Adam because I wasn't here -- I was in Indiana.

"You just think about the limited amount of times that I had spent with him, where Kenny, I had spent the last nine years of my life with him -- more than I spent with my parents.

"You know we've had our ups and downs. We've had a relationship just like the relationship I had with my fiancée last year. We had good times and bad times. But when it came down to it we respected each other and had a mutual respect for what each other could do. It wasn't a bitter rivalry, but it was a rivalry and we pushed each other all the time."

It had begun when the pair was fighting for a championship at their home state Indianapolis Speedrome. It hadn't abated a bit in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

"Getting ready to start the race today, it was like, 'Well who is there to push me?'" Stewart said. "I always would look at the sheets after practice sessions and say, 'Well where is Irwin at?' I just wanted to know.

"I don't know how to describe it. It was just a weird feeling this morning trying to get in a race car and try to race without him today. It just didn't seem right. I still think I'm going to walk around a corner and he is going to be there somewhere."

By Sunday everyone was ready to go home from New England or at the very least to go somewhere else. And fittingly a heavy rain washed the facility for several hours after Stewart was declared the victor.

On Friday, after a brief late-day splattering of rain, in what many witnesses interpreted as a poignant tribute to the departed souls of Adam Petty and Irwin, an interlocking double rainbow appeared across Turns 3 and 4 of the tortured oval and down the track's backstretch leading to Turn 3.

"It's just a hard thing to have to deal with," Stewart said, closing the chapter, but not the book on his devotion to his fallen friend. "It's not the first time I've had to deal with something like this, but it gets harder and harder every time for some reason."

Stewart had to deal with a similar situation in 1996 at Indianapolis, when his teammate Scott Brayton was killed in a crash after winning the pole position for the Indianapolis 500.

"I had the same feeling when I ran in '96 with Scotty," Stewart said of his Indy Racing League experience. "I got in his car when they re-built it. I went out and run like 233 (miles per hour) on my third lap by, which was fast time for the day, I think, in race set-up. For those cars at that time, that was pretty quick, and I swore somebody else was there driving. I knew it was Scott."

Stewart said he had someone looking over his shoulder Sunday, and he had no doubt who it was.

"It was just like today," he said, grinning at the thought. "There were times I made mistakes in the car, but I didn't panic and it just felt like somebody was there with you, helping. To me, it felt like Kenny was there, and you just felt like he was there, giving a hand. It just was a weird day."

But not one on which Stewart was ready to decline the assistance.

"I kind of looked up there and I said, 'Hey big buddy, a bucket of water right now wouldn't hurt us any,'" Stewart said, cocking his eye toward the ceiling. "He made me wait a little longer than I wanted to wait for it, though. I don't know. He is probably busy at the check-in counter up there or something. He probably made me sweat for it a little bit. That's like him."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Adam Petty