Tony Stewart Off to Best Start of Career

Friday, March 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Tony Stewart is off to the best start of his NASCAR career. Six races into the season, the Winston Cup champion is third in points even without finishing better than fifth in a race.

And the driver President Bush knew as ``the bad boy of NASCAR'' when they met last winter is clear of controversy.

There have been several opportunities this season for Stewart to let his temper get the best of him. So far, he hasn't let it.

That's a big change for a driver known in the past for temperamental outbursts on and off the track. He punched a photographer at the Brickyard 400 last August and also was accused last year of shoving an EMT worker and pushing a fan.

``I'm really making a conscious effort to change who I've been,'' Stewart said Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway. ``Not change who I am as a person, but just change how I deal with things.

``I think that's the perception that people have got, they think I'm a different person than who I am because of those actions. It'd be nice if we can really show them who we really are as a person, and not do destructive things and be productive this year.''

Stewart will drive the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Chevrolet this week at Texas Motor Speedway, where he's had three top-10 finishes.

Qualifying is Friday for the Samsung/RadioShack 500. The seventh NASCAR race at the 1 1/2-mile quad-oval will be run Sunday.

Stewart has never been a strong starter at Texas, but that hasn't really mattered. He has improved an average of 21 places from start to finish in his four races.

After starting 29th last year, he finished fifth and moved into the top 10 in the points race to stay. This year, for the first time, he's already in the top 10 when he gets to Texas two months into the season.

``It seems like the first seven or eight races have typically been the weakest part of our season,'' he said. ``Being able to be able to just get through those first seven or eight right now in the position that we are at, we are heads and shoulders above where we typically have been.''

While he remains as intense as ever, Stewart insists there isn't any pressure on him to repeat as Winston Cup champ. He said winning the title last year took away the pressure to prove himself and that he's having as much fun as he ever has in NASCAR.

But he certainly wants to defend the title.

Stewart has also said he wants to have an uneventful and unemotional season. So far he has, even after some trying moments.

``Things are right on schedule. It's working better that I ever could have hoped for,'' said Stewart, 31. ``I'm happier than I've ever been in my life right now, and it's perfect timing for me.''

At Rockingham in the second race of the season, he had a pit-road collision with Jimmie Johnson, an on-track collision with Kyle Petty and had his front end damaged when he ran over debris. Instead of letting his temper get the best of him afterward, he sounded satisfied being able to salvage a 20th-place finish.

Last week at Bristol, Stewart was involved in three accidents, the last of which finally knocked him out with 27 laps left. It's the only race he hasn't finished this year.

There was an on-track bump with Ricky Rudd after being pinched against the wall, but again no temperamental outburst from Stewart.

``It doesn't do any good to be ballistic, and that doesn't mean that somewhere along this year I won't,'' Stewart said. ``I wanted to pull somebody else's hair out, but I went to the bus and took a shower until the water got cold.''