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Stewart in lead for points title

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Tony Stewart rolls his eyes at stupid questions, not hesitating to point out the absurdity of the request. He’s often sarcastic, sometimes downright rude.

Other times, he’s endearing, quick with a one-liner, a candid opinion or a compliment.

Now the brooding, short-tempered driver who has spent most of the past two seasons on NASCAR probation is on the verge of his first Winston Cup championship.

For a 31-year-old man passionate only about racing and winning, some wonder if he’s ready, willing and able to be NASCAR’s leading ambassador.

“The last time I checked, we were racing for a points championship. I don’t think I’m running for political office,” Stewart said. “It’s not an elected office. I’ve not been told of any ‘responsibilities.’

“If everybody is going to make it a lot more complicated, I’m going to be pretty disappointed, to be perfectly honest.”

Although there are no written requirements or responsibilities, NASCAR needs its champion to be its million-dollar marketing tool.

Should Stewart successfully hold off Mark Martin in Sunday’s season finale to win the points title, the Indiana native will be the poster boy for the rapidly growing sport. NASCAR will turn to him to sell the product, the image, the event.

It’s a job in which some past champions have thrived.

Jeff Gordon loves the media attention, the swing through the morning talk show circuit and the coast-to-coast appearances that accompanied his four titles.

Rusty Wallace loved it, too, proudly boasting how he cut vacations short or flew across the country on an hour’s notice to make it to an event when NASCAR needed its 1989 champion.

Others struggled with it. The late Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time champion, cherished his free time. Bill Elliott didn’t want to be bothered so much.

But that was a long time ago, before NASCAR went mainstream and set goals of trying to reach markets such as New York and Los Angeles. NASCAR will need Stewart to help out.

He could be perfect for the job, because when Stewart is on, he’s entertaining. He joked his way through last season’s awards ceremony, causing more than 1,000 people at the black-tie affair to burst into laughter.

But it’s a role he may be reluctant to fulfill. When it comes to racing, Stewart only wants to think about the car and the track. Those who know Stewart recognize that he hates nothing more than being forced to do things.

NASCAR isn’t worried about Stewart.

“In the broad sense, a champion is called on to represent NASCAR, and I am convinced he can meet that challenge,” said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter. “He is definitely not vanilla, he is Neapolitan, and you get a little bit of everything with Tony Stewart.

“We know he can charm Godzilla when he wants to. We also know that when he puts on his game face and gets ready to race, leave him alone, get out of the way.”

Since he punched a photographer following an August race in Indianapolis, Stewart has been guarded and almost unapproachable. Interviews are rare, and his availability is carefully orchestrated.

“The biggest thing about being champion is the extra demands on your time,” said Bobby Labonte, Stewart’s teammate and the 2000 Winston Cup champion.

“There are so many things away from the race track that NASCAR needs you to do, so many more appearances for your sponsors, for your fans. I think Tony can handle all that, but when it starts to cut into the time you’d use on the things you really want to be doing, that’s when it starts to be a little frustrating.”

When the Winston Cup garage closes, Stewart likes to find a local dirt race he can run in later that night. He prefers to eat at McDonald’s in old jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt.

Gordon has said the week in New York as champion was one of the greatest times of his life. For Stewart to enjoy it, Gordon said he will have to be himself.

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