Sunday, November 10, 2002

Stewart on cusp of Cup title

Driver has points lead, but Martin is close behind

The Associated Press

AVONDALE, Ariz. - Tony Stewart doesn't want to talk about winning the Winston Cup championship. He just wants to do it.

It could happen as soon as today in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Stewart is going into the race with a 112-point lead over Mark Martin, also seeking his first Cup title. Martin needs to finish 16th or better to force Stewart to race him for the championship next Sunday in the season finale in Homestead, Fla.

That's the likely scenario, considering Martin has seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 14 starts here. And that would only prolong the agony for Stewart, who is definitely not enjoying escalating off-track demands.

Stewart loves everything about being a race driver - except the public-relations responsibilities.

Fans crowding around for autographs, public appearances for his team and sponsors, and constant demands from the media all are agonizing for the 31-year-old racer.

Now, on the cusp of winning NASCAR's most prestigious championship, all of the above is nearly overwhelming for a man who has a notoriously short fuse and has been in trouble with NASCAR and even his own sponsor for outbursts this season and last.

He could be the first Winston Cup champ, at least since the modern era began in 1972, to win the title while on probation.

Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing team put out the word Friday that the driver would not be available for any interviews until after the championship was decided.

A storm of protest by the assembled media finally prompted an afternoon interview session.

Stewart showed up smiling, but some of his responses did not reflect a man enjoying his task.

Questioned if he is approaching today's race any differently than other races this year, Stewart, somewhat sarcastically, said: "I haven't changed anything up to now. Why would I change now? It's just race 35 of 36. It's just another week in paradise here."

Stewart, who would be the third first-time winner in four years, could be put out of his off-track misery today by clinching the title, which he could do in several ways.

If he gains 73 points on Martin, Stewart would wrap up the championship and the nearly $4million that goes with it.

A gain of 39 points would require Stewart only to start the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the crown.

Martin, bitterly disappointed after being penalized a critical 25 points for having an unapproved spring on his car last Sunday in Rockingham, N.C., is still more comfortable with the situation and the media than Stewart.

Martin finished a second in Rockingham and Stewart, fighting an ill-handling car throughout the race, wound up a lap down in 14th. Without the penalty, Martin would be 87 points behind.

Martin will start Sunday's race seventh and Stewart 16th in the 43-car field.

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