Retiring Tony Stewart in spotlight as NASCAR playoffs begin
CHICAGO (AP) — Tony Stewart's complex personality was on display at media day for NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Stewart was laughing, telling stories of fellow driver Chase Elliott when he was little and gushing over how much fun he's having in his last season before retirement.
Stewart also snapped at questions he didn't like and declared it "doesn't matter" if the drivers he has wrecked in the past two weeks seek payback over the final 10 races.
"It's time for the Chase now. It's a whole different mindset and a whole different approach each week," Stewart said Thursday. "We've got to go out and worry about what we need to do win a championship, not worry about the other stuff."
That other stuff is wrecking rookie Brian Scott two weeks ago and then former teammate Ryan Newman last week, ending Newman's slim chances of making the 16-driver Chase field.
Newman blasted Stewart after the race Saturday night at Richmond, calling him "bipolar" and bringing up the 2014 incident in which Stewart fatally struck a sprint car driver.
"I guess he thought he was in a sprint car again and didn't know how to control his anger," Newman said.
Stewart said he's yet to talk to Newman since, but they're expected to have a NASCAR-mandated chat before practice Friday at Chicagoland Speedway.
"It would be easier to take it personal, but that was deciding factor in his season whether he was going to make the Chase or not," Stewart said. "We've been friends a long time and we were teammates, so I respect him a lot. It's a high-pressure moment and I've been in those, too, and I've said things.
"Whether he meant to say it or not or whether he still believes it or not, that's up to him. But that moment is a hard moment for any of us. It's tough in that scenario, so I can't blame him."
Stewart then chided a reporter for suggesting the incident could overshadow his bid to win a fourth series championship and his first since 2011. The opening race is Sunday at 1 1/2-mile Chicagoland Speedway.
"If you think that's going to be a storyline for 10 weeks, then you're going to miss a lot," Stewart said. "You're going to be wasting your time on something that's not even relevant. This Chase is going to be pretty intense in itself."
All 16 title-eligible drivers appeared at the media event at the Bridgeport Art Center.
Elliott first met Stewart when he was a shy 4-year-old tagging along with his father and former driver, Bill Elliott.
"For the first three years I knew Chase, I didn't even know he could talk," Stewart said, smiling.
Elliott, who replaced the retired Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet, called Stewart someone he's "looked up to" for a long time.
"Tony was the first guy, other than my dad, I was ever OK with pulling for," Elliott said. "I'm glad that he decided to wait one more year because that is a pretty special moment for me to be able to race against one of my heroes like that."
Not everyone agrees, however. Stewart has got into incidents with several drivers over the years while displaying a fiery temper.
"I'm not sure that every fan out there loves him or has the relationship that I do with him," said Jimmie Johnson, a six-time champion who is seeking to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most career titles.
"He's always been feisty," Johnson added. "There's been more speed in his car, which has been good to see, and it's led to some more feistiness I guess."
The Chase field includes top-seed and 2015 champion Kyle Busch, four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers and 2014 champion Kevin Harvick.
The spotlight, though, will be on Stewart.
"You have to be on your game right now," he said. "You have to be fast, right now, to win this championship."
Based on his history, the 45-year-old Stewart won't leave the sport quietly.
"It's meant more than I thought it would. I was ready at the end of last year to retire," Stewart said. "Coming back, we really did it for our fans. We wanted our fans to see us run a last year. But it's been fun to race with these guys one last year. These last 10 weeks aren't going to be any different."