Stewart comments out of place

Updated: February 15, 2004, 11:38 PM ET
By Jonathan Baum | ESPN.com

Tony Stewart
Stewart
Tony Stewart was happy for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Tony Stewart was proud of his team.

Despite being beaten to the finish after leading more laps than anyone else on Sunday, Stewart was mostly smiles after Sunday's Daytona 500, offering a congratulatory embrace to the race winner after their 500-mile battle. In fact, he had nothing but praise for Earnhardt Jr. while appearing genuinely happy to have finished second.

But when Stewart talked to the NBC crew after the race, he couldn't resist the opportunity to lambaste one of his fellow drivers ... on national television ... for the second time in just one day.

"I'm so proud of the Home Depot team," said Stewart, referring to the work the No. 20 crew did to repair the car after suffering damage during a practice session on Saturday. "John Andretti wrecked us yesterday just being stupid -- that's just what John does."

That was the first thing Stewart had to say on television after the race. Maybe it was heat of the moment, albeit a moment that occurred 24 hours earlier.

Maybe not.

"We had a couple things we wanted to try yesterday in happy hour, but John Andretti tried to wreck us for the second straight day in a row, tore our car up," said Stewart in the postrace news conference a little while after the NBC interview.

Sure, mentioning Saturday's incident to put his crew's commendable efforts into appropriate context was appropriate. But continuing to take shots at Andretti seemed a bit unnecessary.

In case you are wondering, here's what happened Saturday.

Andretti forced Stewart into the wall, causing significant damage to the right side of Stewart's car. While Andretti appeared to be responsible for the crash, there is question as to the motivation.

Many believe it was unintentional, but there was some speculation that Andretti was paying back Stewart for intentionally trying to shuffle him back during a 125-mile qualifying race. For his part, Andretti denied that he was at fault. Rather, he blamed Stewart for incidents on Friday and Saturday.

"He tried to make it wider than what it was, in my opinion, and it ended up being a tight squeeze," Andretti told The Indianapolis Star. "Luckily, there was nobody else around us."

But Stewart was having none of it when he spoke during a live interview on national television before the race Sunday.

"Ten days in a row is a lot for John Andretti," said Stewart, referring to the many days of on-track action during Speedweeks at Daytona. "He starts running out of talent after three days."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart
Stewart (left) did have nice things to say about Earnhardt Jr. after the race

Stewart went on to imply that it was that lack of talent that got Andretti fired by Petty Enterprises last season.

Whether Stewart was right or wrong in assigning blame for Saturday's Happy Hour incident is almost irrelevant. Let's assume that it was Andretti's fault. Does that give Stewart free rein to rip Andretti through the media?

Stewart certainly has the right to say whatever he wants, but anyone watching Tony Eury Sr. mindlessly criticize Michael Waltrip after Thursday's first Gatorade 125 qualifying race should have learned that publicly criticizing another driver or team just makes the complainer -- no, the whiner -- look petty.

Waltrip responded by saying Eury should have come to him and not criticized him through the press -- and Eury later agreed, admitting he should have just kept his mouth shut.

Stewart easily could have approached Andretti when the cameras weren't around. But for someone who so often complains about the media distorting his words, getting the story wrong or just manufacturing issues, Stewart took full advantage of the sea of microphones and cameras surrounding him at Daytona.

"Maybe he's mad at me or something," Andretti told the Star. "He needs to come over here and talk about it and not talk about it on the racetrack. I almost didn't have a car (after Stewart hit Andretti from behind on Friday) and he didn't come over and say sorry or anything."

Andretti said he wasn't holding a grudge.

"There's nothing me to him. I don't know about him to me."

Well, John, Stewart's prerace and postrace comments pretty much erase all doubt about that issue.

Stewart, easily one of the best drivers in the sport, has won 17 races and a Cup championship in just five years in NASCAR's top circuit. Andretti has only two wins -- one coming in the summer Daytona race in 1997 -- and never has finished better than 11th in the points race in 10 full Cup seasons. So if a war of words breaks out over who is at fault for an on-track incident, Stewart certainly has the credentials and a record of success to back him up.

But Andretti is one of the nicer drivers in the garage, seemingly laconic but armed with a dry wit. As for Stewart? He can be funny, engaging, entertaining and friendly -- when he wants to be. But he also has a well-known, colorful garage history.

Andretti might have been in the wrong during Happy Hour action Saturday, but he was nothing but a class act off the track.

"I'm extremely proud of my Home Depot team," Stewart said. "I thought we had an excellent day."

Indeed, the team did have an excellent day Sunday, helping its driver to a second-place finish in the Daytona 500.

But on that same day, Stewart -- who, to be fair, was more than generous with his comments concerning most other drivers and teams on Sunday -- could have taken a lesson from Andretti and handled that situation a bit differently before and after his 500 miles in a race car.

Jonathan Baum is a motorsports editor at ESPN.com.

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