Stewart wins amid fights, threats
JOLIET, Ill. -- Angry words and punches were flying, and people were wrestling on the ground in Tony Stewart's pit.
For once, though, NASCAR's bad boy wasn't anywhere near the drama.
Stewart ran away with the Tropicana 400 on Sunday, but his first victory since October was marred by a wreck with rookie Kasey Kahne that touched off a fight in the pits and had owner Ray Evernham calling for the 2002 NASCAR champion to be suspended.
"I'm just happy that we won a race today,'' Stewart said. "Last time I checked, we were here doing auto racing. Not boxing.''
At times, it was hard to tell.
Stewart dominated the race, leading 160 of the 267 laps on the 1½-mile oval and running as much as seven seconds ahead. He took the lead for good on lap 241, and beat Nextel Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson by 2.925 seconds -- almost 20 car lengths.
But his dazzling performance will be overshadowed by yet another messy crash in a career already marked by them -- even if this one wasn't his doing.
"He definitely needs to get suspended, and he should have his (backside) beat,'' said Evernham, owner of Kahne's team, Evernham Motorsports. "That's the problem with him. Nobody has ever really grabbed him and given him a good beating.
"If he doesn't get suspended, maybe I'll do that.''
Kahne was leading the race with Sterling Marlin second and Stewart third as the field got ready to run green again on lap 127. But all three were bunched tight in a pack with several cars not on the lead lap in front of Kahne.
After the restart, Stewart passed Marlin on the outside and slid in behind Kahne. But something happened -- exactly what is at the heart of the dispute -- and Stewart's Chevrolet tapped the back end of Kahne's Dodge, sending it headfirst into the wall while Stewart darted out of harm's way and into the lead.
Evernham and Kahne said Stewart spun the rookie out intentionally.
"That was blatant,'' Evernham said. "You know when you're up against the back of somebody.''
Added Kahne, "Obviously the 20 (car) was in the back of me and put us up in the wall. I don't know why he would do that. He had the car to beat all day. All he had to do was go through a couple more turns and he probably would have passed us.''
But Stewart, who is on probation until Aug. 18 for a previous postrace fight with Brian Vickers, said he didn't intend any harm. When Kahne checked up, Stewart said he had nowhere to go but Kahne's bumper.
"It could have crashed us just as easy as it did him,'' Stewart said. "It surprised me because I sure as heck didn't expect him to check up especially at that part of the racetrack. We were boxed in with the wall on one side and a lot of cars on the other side. That's not a spot where you want to end up having a tangle with somebody.''
Besides, Stewart said, his car was running so well he didn't need to take anyone out.
"We didn't need to turn him around to get to victory lane,'' Stewart said. "We were going to win this race no matter what.''
NASCAR officials agreed with Stewart's version, saying afterward that the collision was simply a racing accident and there won't be any penalties.
But that was only the first half of the ugliness.
A few seconds after the wreck, Kahne's crew chief Tommy Baldwin charged into Stewart's pit. Baldwin and Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief, shouted at each other, and then members of the crews began fighting.
"I was just talking to Zippy and telling him his driver is a moron,'' Baldwin said. "They started pushing me and then the official grabbed me. I don't know what happened after that.''
The pit crews mixed it up for a few minutes before order was restored. The shirt of one crew member was ripped open but no one was hurt. Kahne's crew went back to their garage to try to repair the car, which was severely damaged in the front. After a few minutes, Baldwin walked to NASCAR's trailer and spent several minutes inside talking with officials.
Evernham also talked to officials -- and he was livid.
"You got a guy that does this week in and week out, and nobody's doing anything about it,'' Evernham said. "... We're not going to play that game. If nothing's done, we'll just figure out some other way to handle it.''
Stewart has a laundry list of offenses in his six seasons in NASCAR's top series. He was put on probation for the run-in with Vickers, and NASCAR also fined him $50,000 and docked him 25 championship points. He's racked up more than $100,000 in fines over the years, and has been on probation four times.
He's also had a previous problem with Kahne. At Darlington in March, Stewart bumped Kahne from behind and sent him sliding through turns three and four.
NASCAR spokesman Herb Branham said the sanctioning body has already begun investigating the fight in the pits. A decision on penalties won't come until later in the week, at the earliest.
Told that Evernham had called for his suspension, Stewart refused to comment.
"To be honest, I'm not even interested,'' he said. "We didn't need an accident with him to win the race. I'm sure he's frustrated, I'm sure his whole team is frustrated. I really don't care what he said.''
Instead, Stewart just wants to savor his victory.
Stewart was forced to use his backup car after a hard crash while practicing Friday morning at Chicagoland Speedway. But the backup might have been even better than his first choice.
Starting 10th, Stewart wasted no time working his way through the field. He climbed to third before the first caution came out on lap 19 and took over the lead for the first time on lap 22, when the leaders pitted.
The race was his from there. After the crash, he led for 53 of the next 54 laps before pitting on lap 180. He took the lead for good on lap 241 when he passed Jeremy Mayfield, and no one challenged him again.
"Other than the controversy, it was pretty uneventful,'' Stewart said.''
After the Chevys of Stewart and Johnson came the Ford of Dale Jarrett and the Chevy of polesitter Jeff Gordon. Mayfield was fifth in a Dodge.
Johnson increased his lead in the series to 105 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 22nd. Gordon is third, 242 points behind teammate Johnson. Stewart is 302 points back in fourth place.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press