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Stewart wins amid fights, threats

7/11/2004

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.