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NASCAR Driver Tony Stewart Revved Up To Treat Fans To His Final Drive

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To NASCAR now and a controversial driver who will hit the gas just a few more times before retiring. Tony Stewart has won three championships, become co-owner of a race team and paid numerous fines over his 18 seasons. His style has created enemies, but it's also why his fans love him and other drivers respect him. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic reports.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Tony Stewart has a temper. That's been clear since 1999, his rookie season in NASCAR's top circuit.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And as you can see, Tony Stewart here was out of his car, throwing his gloves at Kenny Irwin.

TOMSIC: Stewart reached into Irwin's moving car and had to let go as Irwin sped off. That was after the two drivers kept bumping each other in a race. NASCAR fined Stewart $5,000. In the years since he's crashed cars, shoved drivers, punched a photographer, kicked a tape recorder and stomped back onto the track to throw something.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tony's not very happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Whoa.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Gosh, looks familiar.

TOMSIC: Two things stand out from this instant in 2012 - how the crowd roared as Stewart nailed Matt Kenseth's windshield with his helmet and how nonchalant the announcers were.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's a perfect strike.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: That's a nice throw.

TOMSIC: Just Stewart being Stewart. Matt Kenseth laughs about it now.

MATT KENSETH: Nobody likes being involved in that stuff, but whether they tell you they like to or not, everybody loves to watch it, right? So...

TOMSIC: He says it's certainly a draw for fans. And he says the fire Stewart races with is part of what makes him great.

KENSETH: Man, I've never seen anybody more talented behind the wheel than Tony. Whether it's in a dirt car or a stock car, there's nobody better.

TOMSIC: Stewart was a dirt track champion and Indy car champion before transitioning to NASCAR's top circuit. He then won NASCAR's Sprint Cup championship in 2002, 2005 and 2011. He kept racing on dirt tracks, too. And in 2014, that led to what he calls a tragic accident. On a dirt track in New York, Stewart knocked Kevin Ward, Jr.'s car into a wall. Ward then walked into the middle of the race to confront Stewart's car.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Oh, he hit him.

TOMSIC: In a spectator's YouTube video, you see Stewart's car fishtail and Ward go under one of the tires, killing him. Stewart says it was an accident, and a grand jury decided not to press charges. After that decision, Stewart said he thinks about what happened every day.

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TONY STEWART: It's going to be a part of my life. It's going to be a part of Kevin's family's life. It's never going to go away for any of us. But hopefully, it'll get easier for all of us.

TOMSIC: Ward's family sued Stewart and that lawsuit is now in federal court. Stewart has continued to drive aggressively and speak his mind. This season, NASCAR fined him $35,000 after he blasted the association for a lug nut policy that he said put drivers at risk with loose wheels.

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STEWART: I don't know if it was the delivery that got NASCAR upset or what, but the message was right. I think you guys know after 17 full years of this if I strongly believe in something, I'm going to speak up for it.

TOMSIC: A group of NASCAR drivers paid the fine for Stewart and NASCAR later changed the policy. In the campground at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jerry Goodin says Stewart reminds him of iconic drivers from earlier generations like Richard Petty.

JERRY GOODIN: He's going to do what it takes to win. He's very aggressive. He doesn't hold back, says he wants to say.

TOMSIC: Goodin says Stewart is the last of the old-school drivers.

JUDY WILEY: And I'm old-school, too, so I guess that's why I kind of like him (laughter).

TOMSIC: This is another fan, Judy Wiley.

WILEY: That's the greatest thing you can say about him. He's old-school. But he's a genuine good person.

TOMSIC: She points to the foundation he's had for many years that helps critically ill children. Some drivers say it's part of the generous off-the-track version of Stewart many people don't see. Defending champion Kyle Busch says when he first started...

KYLE BUSCH: He put his arm around me and definitely helped me and gave me some insight on how the sport is.

TOMSIC: With a handful of races left, Stewart is out of the running for this year's championship. When he announced his plan to retire, he made clear he's not going away.

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STEWART: NASCAR's probably going to be the most disappointed of everybody today because they aren't getting rid of me. So they have to deal with me as an owner. So there's still the opportunity to get fined and there's still opportunity to be put on probation, just like always.

TOMSIC: Stewart will remain co-owner of the Stewart-Haas racing team. He jokes that next season, you'll probably see him enjoying a race from the top of some fan's motor home. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACY LAWRENCE SONG, "ONE FOOT ON THE PEDAL")

KELLY: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. BJ Leiderman writes our theme music. Rachel Martin returns next week. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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