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Nam Y. Huh

Stewart in spotlight as Chase begins

Profile image for By Mike Cranston
By Mike Cranston
StewartNam Y. Huh
Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO — Tony Stewart’s complex personality was on display at media day for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.

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 drivers he has wrecked in the last 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 Brian Scott two weeks ago and then former teammate Ryan Newman last week, ending Newman’s chances of making the 16-driver Chase.

Newman blasted Stewart after the race Saturday night at Richmond, calling him “bipolar” and bringing up the 2014 incident in which Stewart’s car 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 today at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.

“It would be easier to take it personal, but that was the 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 championship and his first since 2011. The opening race is Sunday at 1 1/2-mile Chicagoland.

“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 Chase drivers appeared at the Bridgeport Art Center.

Elliott first met Stewart when he was a shy 4-year-old tagging along with his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.

“For the first three years I knew Chase, I didn’t even know he could talk,” Stewart said.

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.”

Not everyone agrees. 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 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 seeds Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, all the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, 2014 champion Kevin Harvick and rookie Chris Buescher of Prosper.