Expect Stewart to fly to front

Updated: July 3, 2004, 3:18 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Tony Stewart
Stewart

Tony Stewart is racing at Daytona, whirlwind surrounding him notwithstanding. And if our memories of Stewart's reaction to having his back against the wall serve correct, he will do quite well.

That's because Stewart races best when he's created a me-against-the-world environment. And it's because, once again, his sponsor Home Depot and NASCAR continue to allow him to create these scenarios.

Stewart will start Saturday night's Pepsi 400 from 17th on the grid. But don't be fooled. It won't take him long to hook up with Dale Earnhardt Jr. And you know where to find Junior. He'll be the guy up front.

And Stewart knows all of this. Which is why the backlash from his very light punishment ($50,000 fine, loss of 25 points, no suspension) and the outrage over his actions are just a joke to him. On Thursday, he sat at Daytona International Speedway without a care in the world.

"I'm pretty happy with it," he said of his qualifying lap. "That's the first time that we've actually picked up in qualifying for about a year and a half here. Typically we always get the thing taped off too much trying to get that little extra steam.

"Normally we get it too hot and it costs us horsepower. We did a great job tonight. We picked up. I don't know we're going to end up but it should give us a somewhat solid spot. The biggest thing tonight is just getting your pit selection. You'll have plenty of opportunities to go to the front."

Opportunities. Stewart knows about that. He's had, and will always have, plenty of them. Forget the example that sets for the fans. Forget that NASCAR is a family sport and many parents bond with their kids over the race. Forget that those kids saw Stewart once again display unsportsman-like conduct, and once again get the opportunity to race the next weekend.

Forget the fact that Stewart hasn't learned any lessons. Does NASCAR honestly think its punishment was just right? With Stewart appearing a day later to say he thought the slap on the wrist was too harsh?

"I'm not sure I totally agree with the punishment on it, which other people have disagreed and said I probably should have been parked this week," Stewart said. "I didn't have anything to gain by going and talking to him down there. I wasn't even mad when I went down there. I went down there to kind of tell him what exactly happened."

I hate the prospect of a diluted NASCAR as much as anyone. I think the fact that drivers can and do confront each other after races is awesome. It shows how much they care about what they do. But when Dale Earnhardt would get in Jeff Gordon's face, you never feared that Earnhardt was going to swing.

With Stewart, you always do. And NASCAR's done nothing to stop that. And as a result, Stewart will start 17th Saturday night. On his mind will be thoughts of drafting and titles. Not what he did wrong, or what he might need to change to start acting right.

"Anytime you can win at Daytona it's big," he said Thursday. "Obviously if I could pick which month of the year I'd do it in, I'd rather do it in February than July. Trust me, to win at Daytona is special for anybody. I remember the first time Dale Jr. won here at Daytona. It was a pretty emotional weekend for him. It'd be great to do that."

Thanks to NASCAR, he'll have that chance. And probably as many as he needs in the future, too.

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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