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Full throttle

The Baltimore Sun

Last year, Stewart suggested that NASCAR races were rigged, contending that the race organization latched on to flimsy excuses, such as minor debris on the track, to wave a caution flag. After some stern words from the great god NASCAR, Stewart said he didn't mean it. But like a little kid who's chronically in the cookie jar or kicking over other kids' sand castles, you knew he'd be at it again.

In a comparison that appeared all over the media last year, Jeff Gordon called Stewart "the Rosie O'Donnell of NASCAR" because of his penchant for inciting controversy.

Stewart's image as a contrary cuss is only heightened by his physical appearance. Unlike the sleek, clean-shaven Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart is a little -- um, big-boned, to put it politely -- and occasionally sports a 5 o'clock shadow, plus two days.

He's always bumping up against guys that he thinks are holding him up. And while racecar drivers frequently get into shoving matches with each other for perceived on-track transgressions, Stewart actually tries to climb through car windows to get to the other guy.

And so here we are metaphorically following the pace car on the way to the 50th running of The Great American Race Sunday, the Daytona 500, and Stewart is already in midseason form.

Friday, he was in a little bumping incident with an old fender-rubbing pal, Kurt Busch (these two tangled at last year's Daytona 500 and on other occasions). In the most recent incident, on a practice run prior to an exhibition race in Daytona -- a practice run, understand -- Stewart nudged Busch from behind.

Busch's car banged the wall. As the two were coming off the track, Busch started banging Stewart's car. In short order, both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where, according to reports, Stewart threw a punch at Busch.

So here we are, still several days away from the first race of the year, and both Stewart and Busch have been placed on probation for six races. What that amounts to, I'm really not sure.

One of the odd twists here is that Stewart drives for former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who has had almost as much success as a racecar owner as he has had as a football coach. As NFL fans know, Gibbs is as reserved and even-tempered as Stewart is mercurial and hot-headed.

Now, here's the best part. The lead-up to all this is that NASCAR has said that for the coming season, it wants drivers to feel free to exhibit a bit more "personality."

The problem is telling Tony Stewart that he's free to exhibit his personality is like pointing out to an arsonist where you keep the matches and the oily rags.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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