Stewart at Southern 500 With New Contract

Friday, August 29th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Tony Stewart has a propensity for overcoming distractions.

Last year, he rallied to win the Winston Cup championship after a series of off-track problems _ most notably punching a photographer _ landed him on season-ending probation.

Now, he can prepare for Sunday's Southern 500 without being asked about his future. Stewart put an end to speculation about that by agreeing Thursday to a five-year contract extension that will keep him with Joe Gibbs Racing through 2009.

Financial terns of the deal were not disclosed.

``I'm happy to have all of this worked out,'' Stewart said. ``Joe Gibbs and everyone associated with Joe Gibbs Racing have been very good to me in the seven years I've been here.

``They've always given me everything I need out on the race track, and they've always been there to support me off the track as well.''

The 32-year-old driver, who had a year remaining on his contract with Gibbs, had been considering a move to Chip Ganassi's Dodge team and had been given a deadline of last Friday.

``We gave him an offer,'' Ganassi said. ``The deadline came and went, and a few days later he re-signed with Gibbs.''

The automaker also had been involved in discussions, but Stewart said duplicating the Gibbs' record would be difficult.

``Our record of success is pretty impressive,'' Stewart said. ``You don't just walk away from that. I did have some very flattering offers, and it felt good to be a wanted man, but Joe Gibbs Racing and Home Depot wanted me, too.''

Gibbs also has been negotiating for an extension with Home Depot _ Stewart's sponsor since his record-setting 1999 rookie season _ and crew chief Greg Zipadelli.

The car owner re-signed Stewart's teammate, 2000 champion Bobby Labonte, earlier this season.

Ricky Craven, who won a thriller from Kurt Busch here in March, will be back on that track for the Southern 500, the final time the event, first run in 1950, will be held on Labor Day weekend.

``For anybody in racing that truly has a passion for this sport, if you haven't been to Darlington, then you're cheating yourself,'' Craven said.

The Southern 500 also marks Jimmy Spencer's return to the track from a NASCAR suspension for punching Busch after a race in Michigan two weeks ago. Busch, who was placed on probation, received a bloody nose and a chipped tooth.

This past weekend, Busch spun out Sterling Marlin during a late pass on the way to a win at Bristol Motor Speedway. The crowd booed Busch in Victory Lane.

Earlier, a defiant Busch had pointed to his panel-to-panel race with Craven.

``I just don't understand what the difference is with you guys when Spencer and I are racing or you have a situation like we did in Darlington last spring,'' Busch said. ``No one commented on how hard Ricky Craven and I raced in a negative way.''

But Busch was contrite Thursday, issuing an apology to fans, his team and sponsors, NASCAR, the media and fellow competitors.

``I am still learning how to deal with public situations that are suddenly placed in front of me while filled with adrenaline from the racetrack,'' he said in statement released by Roush Racing. ``It is obvious to me that I handled the situation poorly.

``I know very well that words are cheap and that my sincerity and commitment will be judged by what I do in the weeks and months ahead.''

The Craven-Busch film clip has been a staple of highlight shows all season. It also has been Darlington's main selling point this time around in TV and radio ads.

With two laps left, the cars bumped and Busch hit the wall in turn one. Craven moved to the lead. Busch recovered and hit the back of Craven's car _ ``a little bit harder than he should have,'' Craven says, wryly _ to regain first.

But Craven slid low and alongside Busch, the two bouncing off each other and grinding to the finish.

``It didn't matter to me if it were on the roof or on the side,'' Craven said. ``I was determined to win that race.''