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Stewart roars on track, purrs among pets

DOVER, DEL. — DOVER, Del. -- Nextel Cup driver Tony Stewart has just finished a practice run, and he is still in his competitive mode. He stands inside his team's transporter and his body language says to a reporter, "Let's get this over with." He has racing on his mind.

As crewmen bustle around him, Stewart responds to questions in short sentences.

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No, the team doesn't miss Washington Redskins coach and car owner Joe Gibbs that much yet. No, his interest in racing in the Indianapolis 500 has been exaggerated. He is still totally committed to Cup racing. No, he can't argue with the suggestion his aggressive nature defines his racing.

But then he is asked if he has any pets.

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Stewart pauses, and a curious thing happens. To that point, he has been looking around at the bustling crew, giving off the distracted air of someone reluctantly fulfilling a commitment. But at the mention of animals, his sturdy, 5-foot-8 frame relaxes. He leans against a counter, looks directly at a questioner and allows himself a smile.

"I have three dogs -- not counting the 41 greyhounds I own," he says, and his chocolate brown eyes laugh at the surprise that remark generates.

Forty-one greyhounds?

"Yes, and every one of them is involved in an adoption program. I wouldn't have them if we couldn't arrange adoption for them when their [racing] careers are finished."

On the racetrack, Stewart drives his car with an attitude. When the bright orange and white No. 20 Chevrolet shows up in a rearview mirror, opposing drivers know who it is and what it means -- he'll be setting up inches from the back bumper, ready to make the pass.

Stewart is known to bite as well as bark.

But at home, he is a softie. Kayle, a 3 1/2 -pound Chihuahua, and her housemates Richmond, a male pug, and Bunny, a border collie and sheltie mix, rule.

"I woke up the other night and Kayle had pushed me over to the last few inches on the side of the bed," says Stewart, who takes the Chihuahua to many races.

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"I got up, walked around the bed, so as not to disturb her, and went back to sleep on the other side. When I woke up in the morning, my head was still on the pillow, but she'd pushed the rest of my body sideways, back to the edge."

Asked who's in charge, Stewart laughs. "She is," he says.

It turns out Tony Stewart, NASCAR's feisty 2002 Cup champion, is unbelievably sentimental. He helps raise money for Kyle Petty's Victory Junction camp for seriously ill children. He makes dreams come true for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and contributes to the Ronald McDonald House.

He has started his own foundation to provide support to critically ill children and to families of race drivers who have been injured in motor sports.

And he also supports a 340-pound Bengal tiger named Tangie, whom he fell in love with when she was 2 1/2 weeks old and in need of a babysitter.

"I got very attached to her," says Stewart, who took care of the tiger cub for more than nine weeks. "I like to sleep in till at least 10 o'clock, and I had this baby tiger who needed feeding every two hours. She would scream and cry and make messes all over the house in very undesirable places and I'd have to clean them up. It was very easy to get attached."

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Stewart was asked to care for the cub by a friend who is the director of the China Grove Refuge Animal Park north of Charlotte, N.C., and he now pays for her upkeep.

"I can't go in her cage and play with her the way I did when she was a baby," says Stewart, "but I go and sit on a bench and watch her, and I can still reach into the cage and pet her without fear of being eaten. She still knows who I am."

Animals, it is said, sense a person's true nature. But with Stewart, there seem to be two true natures, something four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has wondered about more than once.

Enigma for many

"It's no secret Tony can lose his cool," says Gordon, who has had on-track run-ins with Stewart twice this season. "But when I'm around Tony, he's such a nice guy. He has a heart of gold. Then I see him slamming doors and I say, 'Who is that guy?'

"It's nice to be aggressive at times and have that youthfulness, but eventually, you outgrow it and maturity and experience should take over."

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But Stewart is a paradox: charming, warm and giving on one side; demanding, bad-tempered and aggressive on the other.

Off the track, he plays with pets. On it, he flies around the track, fighting for every available inch.

He says he doesn't know where his competitiveness comes from, unless he was simply born with it. He won the 2002 Winston Cup championship, but it hasn't made any difference in how he feels -- not a bit of difference in terms of feeling at peace or being satisfied.

"My mom tells stories about me as a child," Stewart says. "She talks about how I'd get mad if I lost a board game or a card game. I didn't even know it. I didn't think about it or plan it. I just wanted to win.

"The championship was two years ago. It's history. You feel only as good as your last race."

Winning is what matters. He didn't win Sunday at Dover International Speedway, and afterward there was no sign of the sweet guy who had been smiling just two days earlier over his multitude of animals.

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After a rousing duel with Dale Earnhardt Jr., which Stewart won to finish second, he was testy. He came to the post-race interview and couldn't have been more of a brat if he had tried, belittling and insulting the young public relations woman who was coordinating the question-and-answer session.

Stewart is fourth in the Nextel Cup points race, but he has yet to win this season. Sunday, he came close, dominating the competition until his car slipped and he missed the entrance to pit road. It was his best finish since the season-opening Daytona 500, in which he was also second.

Many believe Stewart's inability to reach victory lane has much to do with a series of race mishaps over the past few months, including incidents when he bumped his way past Gordon at Richmond International Raceway, hit Kurt Busch's car and set off a 10-car crash at Talladega and later, in the same race, hit Terry Labonte's car while trying to take a shortcut to pit lane.

Two more incidents followed during the race at California Speedway, where Stewart bumped Rusty Wallace and Gordon. Wallace said he wanted to "whip his rear end." Gordon, who wound up sixth in the Richmond race, says he understood the feeling. But in a cooler moment, he was more understanding.

"I consider Tony one of the best drivers out there," says Gordon.

And that is the rub. Stewart is terrifically talented -- like Gordon is and Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip were. When those kinds of drivers make mistakes, it seems harder for others to accept the "that's racing" excuse.

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Looking back

Stewart says there are different standards.

"Drivers and fans used to get mad at Dale Earnhardt for his aggressiveness and they booed Darrell Waltrip [for disrespecting other drivers]," says Stewart. "But when those drivers got to the end of their careers, they were heroes.

"A lot of it has to do with how the press portrays you to the people. Race fans are smart enough to make judgments when they see things, but if other things are said and written long enough, people start to believe it.

"The last five years, I've tried to convince people who I am, but I've decided it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if Jeff Gordon or everyone out here says I have a heart of gold. People will think what they think, and I've decided I don't care if people see it or not.

"I care about my fans. They've been great. But as long as my family, my friends and my team know who I am and what I'm like, that's enough."

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Retired, seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty says Stewart is just being himself.

"He's been the same guy all the time," says Petty. "It's the people who watch him and the way they watch him that changes. They get on him. They get off him. But he's the same."

Last season, the year after Stewart won the championship, he seemed more calm and at ease. Gordon said Stewart is at his best when he controls his temper, but a cooler Stewart finished seventh in the final standings, the worst finish of his five-year Cup career.

However, he signed a contract extension that will keep him with the Joe Gibbs-owned team through 2009.

"His temper is an asset for him," says driver Mark Martin. "It's part of what got him where he is -- and on certain occasions it hurts him. I don't think he'd win if he wasn't so intense. ... I think his temper, his aggressiveness, is what makes him who he is. It defines him."

Stewart says he is not irritated by not winning.

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"A lot of people haven't won," Stewart says. "There are 43 teams out here most weekends. It's not easy to win. You just take it one week at a time. It's just not as dramatic as everyone makes it out to be.

"We're doing quite well, and this is about the time we start getting hot. You have to remember, to me, the goal is to be in the points battle at the end of the season, be in the top 10. If you're in the top 10, you know you're going to be within 150 points of the leader for the final 10 races."

If Stewart is within 150 points of the leader, he likes his chances. No one is going to push him around then -- unless it's a Chihuahua.


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