" Stewart complained to me the night before — just finished a distant 14th. Jimmie fucking Johnson: the glad-handing, charity-golf-event-hosting, Eddie Haskell-acting, California-born suck-up."I like Jimmie," Stewart says later. He stays in resorts and stuff like that on race weekend.Wish I could afford that kind of lifestyle." Stewart earned an estimated million last year.By the time we land in Indiana, he's relaxed and has become affable and chatty.A beat-up Hummer H2 — one of Stewart's 50-plus car collection — is parked beside the tarmac at the Columbus Municipal Airport."In the bedroom upstairs, Stewart shows off die-cast models of the dirt-track stock cars he grew up racing.There are framed photos of Stewart with his parents, his friend Kid Rock, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Stewart's blond ex-girlfriend, Tara Roquemore, a small-town Home Depot employee from Georgia before she met Stewart at a sponsor event. It's a crisp night at the Phoenix International Raceway, and Stewart's No.
Of his first five races that year, he won one of them, placed in two and wrecked in another."I tore a ligament up in my knee," Stewart says. Young and dumb."Stewart's parents divorced when he was in high school, and his father left for Indianapolis. He tried to lead a normal life — he played city-league baseball, hung out with friends — but he was already running in the go-cart nationals.
"He's been an asshole at times."Stewart barges into the mobile office at the back of the Home Depot hauler where Greg Zipadelli, the only NASCAR crew chief he's ever had, is waiting to debrief him. As we take off over the Phoenix Speedway, Stewart opens a box containing piping-hot Papa John's pizza and takes a is Tony Stewart's 13th year in NASCAR, and at 37 he remains the most magnetic driver in the sport, even if he isn't always the most successful. Over the years, he has thrown his gloves at Kenny Irwin, had a shoving match with Robby Gordon, been accused of assaulting a fan in Bristol, Tennessee (but not indicted), knocked the headphones off a track official at a midget race, kicked a reporter's tape recorder (and apologetically replaced it), punched a photographer (and later befriended him), and told off NASCAR officials after they forced him to wear a helmet restraint."Tony represents what made this sport," says Hunter. Recently, Stewart dropped a bombshell when he announced he was leaving his employer, the deep-pocketed Joe Gibbs Racing, to start his own team in 2009.
At a time when the .5 billion industry of NASCAR has corporatized and spawned a generation of technically gifted, clean-cut racers like Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Stewart — or "Smoke," as he's called in the back rooms — is a throwback to racing's older era of bootleggers and brawlers. Haas CNC Racing, a much smaller outfit that has never won a race and whose principal owner, Gene Haas, is serving two years in prison for tax fraud, offered Stewart a free 50 percent stake in its million organization. The new team is called Stewart-Haas Racing, and it's the biggest move of Stewart's career. Stewart will no longer have the well-regarded Zipadelli in his ear or the Home Depot logo decorating everything in his sightline. I got an edge."Of course, the switch raises a delicious question.
Mike Arning, Stewart's PR rep, fixer and constant aide-de-camp, walks briskly beside his client, hoping to get Stewart out of town without a TV camera catching him saying something he'll regret. He sets down a kitty caddy containing Wylie and Wyatt, his mewling Tonkinese cats. We need different flavors."Not everyone enjoys Stewart's act, however. But 2008 has been a tough season — a "nightmare," he calls it — riddled with crashes, mechanical failures and bad-luck endings.
Arning is not always successful."Tony will at times do or say things that make our skin crawl," says Jim Hunter, a NASCAR vice president who has been with the sport for 40 years. Stewart used to travel with a monkey named Mojo, but when Mojo grew into adolescence — "We realized he was exactly the wrong breed to have as a pet" — Stewart donated him to the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky. You never knew what Junior Johnson was going to say, but if he says it, you know he believes it. Racing blogs burble with invective — "a big orange truckload of crybaby," "fat, arrogant punk-ass," "the biggest douche bag in sports." Before each race, when drivers ride around the track on the backs of pickup trucks and wave at the crowds, none are greeted with so thick a barrage of hate as Stewart. He's not even the top racer on his team this season — he's been surpassed by Kyle Busch, who is currently enjoying a Tiger Woods-like run of dominance in NASCAR.