STEWART forgives and forgets his way to victory

Monday, August 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) _ The situation had the potential for disaster: Jeff Gordon leading lap after lap around the tight turns of Bristol with hotheaded Tony Stewart right on his bumper.

The two clashed in this very place just a few months before, and the slightest tap from Stewart could have sent his rival into the wall and been the sweetest redemption.

Instead, Stewart slipped right past Gordon and drove off to victory in Saturday night's Sharpie 500 _ proving he can forgive and forget.

``There are 43 professional guys that start the race every week and you're not going to get along with all of them 100 percent of the time,'' Stewart said. ``Bristol in the spring was Bristol in the spring, this is the fall race. It's a whole different day.''

Still, it's doubtful retaliation was far from Stewart's mind as he followed Gordon around and around Bristol Motor Speedway.

After all, it was initial contact from Gordon in the spring race that started a chain of events that have marred Stewart's season.

He was running fourth in the final turn of that race when Gordon, charging hard behind him as the two headed to the finish line, sent him into a spin as he tried to pass him. Stewart's car went shooting up the high banking, missing the wall by mere inches.

By the time Stewart refired his car and made it back to the line, he had fallen 21 spots behind and finished 25th. Incensed, he stalked Gordon around the track, catching him on pit road and bumping him out of his way.

The action drew a $10,000 fine and landed Stewart on probation _ which should have ended this month had it not been extended for the rest of the year after an outburst at Daytona in July.

Because of how lightly Stewart must tread these days, Gordon never worried about possible revenge.

``Why would I worry?'' Gordon said before the race. ``He's on probation.''

In the end, it was Stewart's desire to win on his favorite track that took priority.

Although he came into the race with 11 careers victories, none of them were at Bristol Motor Speedway _ a track he liked before he even drove stock cars and fell in love with the minute he saw it.

``The first time I came in here I was amazed, we came through that gate and got down into the infield, I looked up and never saw a sight like what I saw that day,'' Stewart said. ``Anytime anybody has ever asked me what my favorite track was, I always say Bristol.''

That's a strong statement from the Indiana native, who has gone to great lengths in an attempt to fulfill his childhood dream of winning the Indianapolis 500. He never has, notching a career-best finish of sixth in May.

If winning there would be his greatest triumph, winning at Bristol was his most satisfying victory.

``Having the opportunity to drink the milk in victory lane (at Indy) is something I dearly hope I have an opportunity to do before I quit driving race cars,'' he said. ``This is just one of those places where the style of racing is what I enjoy.

``That's what probably makes it so satisfying to win here _ the way you have to be aggressive and you have to at the same time be patient and stay out of all the wrecks all day and work lapped traffic. It makes it more gratifying when you can do that at a place like this.''

For a long while, it didn't look like Stewart would be able to chase down Gordon or continuously avoid the race-record 16 cautions.

Every time Stewart chipped into Gordon's lead, his work was erased by yet another yellow flag. Gordon was far superior on the restarts, but lacked the car to hold off Stewart on long runs.

When Stewart finally caught a break with 30 uninterrupted laps, he passed Gordon with a sweeping slide that started on the bottom of the track in turn 2 and finished in turn 4 on lap 432.

``When Tony got to me I knew it was just a matter of time,'' Gordon said. ``We just got beat, he was real good on the long runs. I think maybe what we needed was some more cautions because when we ran real long, my car got tight and Tony was really good.''

But caution never came out again and Gordon was not a factor the rest of the way. Stewart needed only to hold off rookie Kevin Harvick for his third victory of the season.

``It's just awesome to win at Bristol, it's so hard to do,'' Stewart said. ``So many things happen and there are so many things that can go wrong and I'm just glad we were able to do it.''