Call this coin flip in the air
Since his rookie season, Tony Stewart has been NASCAR's Bad Boy. The reputation is justified and his frequent flare-ups have been well documented.
Last week in the Daytona Beach News Journal there was an abbreviated, nine-item list of Stewart's infractions, entitled "Tony's Rap Sheet." Stewart's fiery temper, combined with his on-track intensity, resembles that of a modern day A.J. Foyt. His attitude has always been, as he said at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway in 1997, "I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to win races."
But there's also a flip side to Stewart, which forces one to ask: Just who is Tony Stewart?
Because, since his rookie season, Stewart has also been one of NASCAR's good boys. He's been enormously charitable, donating incredible amounts of money to various organizations. A year ago he established the Tony Stewart Foundation, created to raise funds for donations to groups caring for chronically ill children and drivers injured in motorsports activities. At Rockingham, N.C., last fall, the foundation made a million dollar pledge to the Victory Junction Gang Camp. While this was a public display of generosity, many of Stewart's charitable contributions have been anonymous and therefore overlooked. No problem though, after all he's there to win races, not to make friends.
Stewart hates the media. On two documented occasions he physically confronted photographers, kicking at one in 2000 and punching another in 2002. Recently, he lashed out at FOX race analyst Darrell Waltrip during a live interview on a FOX broadcast. Reportedly, Waltrip was hurt by the critical comments.
But the conundrum continues.
Stewart loves the media. In 2002, pit road reporter Dick Berggren was to be inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa. But after checking all possibilities for commercial flights, Berggren was despondent that he couldn't make the induction and return to the track in time to perform his broadcast duties. When Stewart heard of the dilemma he provided Berggren the use of his private plane, free of charge.
Fans hate Stewart. For a week now internet chat rooms and bulletin boards have been lit up with inflammatory remarks directed toward the 2002 NASCAR Cup Series champ. Radio call-in shows were flooded with people saying his $50,000 fine for initiating a physical confrontation with Brian Vickers was a mere slap on the wrist. Fans' ire toward the Rushville Rocket is at an all-time high but it's nothing new; two years ago he was accused of assaulting a fan in Bristol, Tenn. That charge was later dismissed.
Sensing a pattern here? You should, because fans also love Stewart. While attending a Home Depot store appearance in 2001 a woman was so overcome with emotion that she approached Stewart in tears. Later during the weekend the two met again in the garage. Stewart was wearing a brand new pair of driving shoes and the woman remarked how nice they were. Stewart reportedly took off his shoes, autographed them and handed them to the woman right then and there.
He has no respect for fellow drivers. In 2000 he had altercations with both Gordons, a shoving match with Robby in Daytona, Fla., and a profanity-laced argument with Jeff in Watkins Glen, N.Y. This season Rusty Wallace wanted to "wring his neck," after the two had an on-track exchange in California. And of course there's the Vickers incident last week.
But ... he has the utmost respect for fellow drivers. After Kevin Harvick won the 2002 IROC Championship, Stewart had a commemorative plaque and print made for Harvick to honor the accomplishment. After the drivers' meeting at Bristol last August, Stewart met with car owner Ray Evernham to go to bat for a young NASCAR Busch Series driver with a ton of potential -- Kasey Kahne. And while attending Red Farmer's induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame this past April, Stewart learned that Farmer needed a $10,000 loan from the bank to buy a new dirt late model. Tony got wind of this and paid for the car himself.
To provide perspective, this column is not meant to condemn Tony Stewart, nor is it to condone his actions. Clearly, Stewart has at times embarrassed himself and the sport. No one can honestly call him an angel, at least not with a straight face. Then again, a full examination reveals he's not exactly the devil, either.
The two-sided Tony makes for a confusing situation. Sometimes instead of anger management he needs psychoanalysis. He's a difficult person to root for but his split personality makes it difficult to root against him.
Last week, Stewart's press agent distributed a release detailing Stewart's reaction to a stiff NASCAR penalty. This week, Stewart's press agent distributed a release detailing Stewart's reaction to an impressive top-five Daytona finish. Guess which one generated more ink.
So again I ask, who is Tony Stewart? Is he the benevolent hero or the self-absorbed villain? I guess it depends on who you want him to be.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.