Prelude puts things in perspective

6/9/2011 - NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tony Stewart was in an incredibly good mood late Sunday afternoon at Kansas for a driver who watched yet another potential victory slip away, this one because his crew didn't get a full tank of gas into his car on the next-to-last pit stop.

He actually was smiling on camera as he explained the circumstances that at other times may have pushed him over the edge.

"The good news is we get to get out of here and go to work at Eldora tomorrow," Stewart said after his eighth-place finish.

Ah, that explains it.

Outside of possibly winning a third Sprint Cup championship, there is nothing Stewart looks forward to during the year more than the Prelude to the Dream, his all-star Late Model event at his dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.

Stewart could have finished Sunday's race in a ball of flames and probably gone away smiling knowing he would spend the next few days personally prepping Eldora Speedway on a tractor and hosting what in seven years has become one of the most popular motorsports charity events of the year.

"He's in his element at that point," crew chief Darian Grubb says of Wednesday night's HBO pay-per-view event. "I definitely would say it puts him in the best mood of the year."

You could sense that last month when Stewart held a press conference with Rick Hendrick in the lobby of Charlotte's Levine Children's Hospital, where Hendrick helped finance the sixth-floor pediatric intensive care unit in memory of his son, Ricky.

The frustration and anger Stewart felt the week before at Richmond International Raceway, where he said "we suck right now ... I am embarrassed about how bad our stuff is," was replaced by a smile and goodwill.

That's because he was talking about the Prelude and the four children's hospitals the event will benefit.

It's called perspective.

"It does help put things in perspective," Stewart says. "It doesn't let you forget about it. You don't want to forget about it because it's another part of our life. But the severity of it and the heartbreak that goes along with a night like that, that part goes away when you come here and see these children."

That doesn't mean Stewart won't revert to his sometimes moody self this weekend at Pocono Raceway. He's as passionate as they are when it comes to the desire to win and a demand for perfection.

He probably better than most understands why team owner Richard Childress assaulted Kyle Busch following last week's Truck Series race in Kansas. He's been in that situation more than once in his career.

Heck, he was there earlier this year when he hit the owner of Sydney (Australia) Speedway with his helmet because he was upset over what he considered unsafe track conditions at a Sprint Car event.

It escalated to the point that Stewart was questioned by local police, a fate that Childress escaped.

To Stewart's credit, he responded with remorse -- something Childress didn't show at all -- saying he was embarrassed and ashamed of what he did. It's a response a younger and brasher Stewart may not have made.

But the more he is involved as a team owner, the more he is involved with charities such as the Prelude, Stewart understands the impression he can leave with his behavior.

That doesn't mean he can crawl out of a car and be happy all the time, or that he'll spend a lot of time hanging around his hauler during a weekend media session when improving his car is his priority. That competitive nature doesn't disappear in the blink of an eye.

"The cool thing about Tony is he's in the shop over there and Darian is over talking to our guys Monday morning," Hendrick says. "They're trying to get better. I think he's done an unbelievable job of being a team leader and an owner.

"He's had some really rough luck. You get frustrated, especially as tough as it is to get in position to have a good race the way the cars are today. He's done a remarkable job of handling himself and the team."

And don't forget about making tough decisions. Stewart on Monday released director of competition Bobby Hutchens, who in less than three seasons helped build Stewart-Haas Racing into a Chase-contending organization.

But Stewart wants to be a championship-contending organization like the one he left at Joe Gibbs Racing, and he apparently didn't feel he was headed in that direction even though he ranks eighth in points and teammate Ryan Newman is 10th.

So he made a change, just like Hendrick shook up his crew chiefs after last season when Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight title. Then Stewart headed for Eldora, which puts him in a happy place like nothing else.

"He's in his comfort zone there when he's actually picking up dirt on the track, checking it out and telling others what to do," Grubb says. "He's able to get away from all the media stuff and do his own thing."

Grubb enjoys the Prelude as well. He and the entire No. 14 crew make the trip on the way to Pocono, if for nothing else just so they can taunt Stewart from the sideline.

"Of course," Grubb says. "We talk about how he's going to get outrun by Tony Kanaan and guys who have never been in a dirt car. It's a lot of fun."

Listening to other drivers, you can understand why Stewart spends most of this week with a smile. Johnson, who stunned everyone by winning last year's Prelude, looks forward to hanging out with competitors after the race as much as he does the race itself.

"I think the earliest I've ever left is probably two or three in the morning after the race just to go to the airplane and get home at sunrise," Johnson says. "It's just fun sitting around and shooting the breeze with the guys and talking racing and hanging out and spending time with these other drivers that you really don't ever get a chance to."

Stewart typically is riding around on his four-wheeler making sure everyone is having a good time.

But once the Prelude is over his mind will be back on winning a Sprint Cup title. The summer is Stewart's time of the season to shine. When the temperature gets boiling hot and the track gets super slick, he excels.

Just look at his winning percentages by months -- 2.5 percent February-May, 14.8 percent June-August and 10 percent September-November.

"It is just the fact that as track grip goes [away] the driver's ability shows up more," Grubb says.

In other words, Stewart is not your average driver. He knows this is a time he can make up for losing races as Las Vegas and Texas he felt he should have won. Pocono, where his 11.5 average finish ranks fifth among active drivers, in particular is a comfort zone.

But for Wednesday, the focus is on Eldora, on helping children such as the one who asked him at Levine Children's Hospital to sign a Jeff Gordon T-shirt.

"Jeff won't mind," Stewart said with a laugh as he autographed the shirt over Gordon's name.

More perspective.

"A lot of times you feel embarrassed, because you realize how hard these kids are fighting to get healthy," Stewart says. "We're all leaving here happy and healthy. We all have jobs. We don't have a care in the world compared to these children and families.

"It's very humbling to see what's going on."

Now you see why Stewart was in such a good mood Sunday.

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