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Overaggressive Stewart pins blame on teammate Hamlin

7/9/2007 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Remember when you were a kid and the bully down the street tried to bump your bike from behind? How he wound up going over the handle bars and then blamed you for bloodying his elbows and knees?

It happened on lap 15 of Saturday night's Nextel Cup race at Daytona International Speedway, only with cars going 200 mph and between drivers that work out of the same garage.

Denny Hamlin was leading the race going into Turn 4 of the 2.5-mile track when Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart bumped him from behind in what NASCAR calls the no-bump zone.

Hamlin almost saved his car, and then Stewart bumped him again to start a multi-car wreck that sent both to the garage.

Next thing you know, Stewart is on television blaming Hamlin for the accident.

"All of a sudden he just stops on the exit of Turn 4 and in front of 42 cars and he can't expect all of us to drive around him," Stewart said. "He just wrecked two really good race cars.

"He tried to wreck us on Friday and didn't get it done. At least he finished it off today. He's a young guy and he wants to be successful, but I don't know if he knows what the definition of team is right now."

Stewart may be a two-time Nextel Cup champion, but that doesn't mean he's always right.

Even if Hamlin checked up a little, and Hamlin insisted he was wide open, Stewart shouldn't have been that close to anybody that early in the race.

Particularly in the corner.

Kyle Busch, who finished second by not much more than the length of his fingernail, agreed.

"For that situation to happen that early in the race, yeah, it was too early for them to be bump-drafting in the corners," he said. "You can't do it here."

Not unless you're Stewart.

"Normally the leader is wide open," Busch said. "I was wide open when Stewart ran over me in the Bud Shootout earlier this year."

By running over Hamlin, Stewart cost himself a chance at winning a third straight July race at Daytona and getting to Victory Lane for the first time in what has been a frustrating season of close-but-no-cigar finishes.

He cost Hamlin a chance at his first victory in a points race at Daytona and kept the 2006 rookie of the year from gaining on points leader Jeff Gordon.

To Hamlin's credit, he took the high road. Told Stewart questioned whether he knew the meaning of team, he said, "I figured I did."

"I'm going to be the bigger man and I'll take the blame on this," he continued. "If he wants to blame it on me, I'll be the bigger man and take responsibility for it.

"He's been around this sport longer than I have and he probably knows more than I do, so I'll just take it for what it's worth."

Hamlin didn't believe he was at fault. A few questions earlier, before knowing Stewart called him out, he said, "I hope he [doesn't] try to blame it on me. I was holding it wide open every single lap."

Given the history of both, who do you believe?

Stewart called out more drivers last year than some drivers do in a career. At Pocono, he blamed Clint Bowyer for driving him too aggressive, and then retaliated by knocking Bowyer into Carl Edwards and wrecking both drivers.

He went on to call Edwards Eddie Haskell from the television show "Leave it to Beaver." Edwards was so ticked that he called Stewart a jerk.

As it turned out, Bowyer was trying to get out of Stewart's way and accidentally got into him.

At the opener in Daytona, Stewart wrecked Matt Kenseth intentionally and later admitted it, saying, "He started the whole thing and I finished it."

The number of incidents involving Stewart are too long to list, from 2001 when he knocked a tape recorder out of a reporter's hand to earlier this year when he accused NASCAR of playing God by calling unwarranted cautions to keep races closer.

He isn't called NASCAR's "Bad Boy" for nothing.

I'm going to be the bigger man and I'll take the blame on this. If he wants to blame it on me, I'll be the bigger man and take responsibility for it.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin, although sometimes as fiery as Stewart in terms of desire to win, has been a choir boy. He earned the praise of Jimmie Johnson and much of NASCAR a year ago the way he raced the eventual 2006 champion over the final laps.

If Stewart wants to know why he spent most of Saturday night coasting around in 38th place he only needs to look in a mirror.

The accident occurred because Stewart became too aggressive at a time when there was no need to be aggressive. It occurred because Stewart is frustrated that he hasn't won a race when with a little luck he easily could have won two or three.

It happened because Stewart can't help being Stewart.

"Like I said last week, Dale Earnhardt Jr., let's remember, is always Dale Earnhardt Jr.," Busch said. "So Tony Stewart, let's remember, is Tony Stewart.

"He's a great race-car driver and he can drive the wheels off of anything. When he says something we're just going to believe it."

Team owner Joe Gibbs, whose day job with the Washington Redskins doesn't allow him many trips to the track, probably wished he was in training camp on this hot, muggy night.

He did his best to play peacemaker, something he's had plenty of practice at with Stewart.

"I am not sure what happened," he said. "But I think it's a shame because we had two good cars. It's a competitive sport and you've got good stuff and you are running up front, it can happen. I hate it, but it did."

Team president J.D. Gibbs hated it happened, too. But he was so upset after the race that he politely declined to talk as he stood beside Hamlin's damaged car in the post-race inspection line.

Stewart, a few cars ahead, was sticking to his story that Hamlin checked up. Asked what happened on Friday, he sarcastically replied, "None of your business."

Asked if there was a lesson to be learned from the incident, he said, "I'm not a teacher."

At least he got that right.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.