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Stewart-Gordon Incident Brings a Smile to Some

Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon have banged their cars together twice in the last two Winston Cup races, and while team owners Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick probably aren’t too pleased about it, Jim Hunter couldn’t be happier.

Hunter is president of Darlington Raceway, the South Carolina track called “too tough to tame,” where Stewart and Gordon will be racing next week in the Southern 500.

“Those two poured some jalapeno sauce on the vanilla ice cream,” Hunter quipped.

Hunter, who grew up when racing was as much about fighting in the pits as drafting on the superspeedways, was there when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough knocked each other out of a Daytona 500 win and were joined by Donnie’s brother, Bobby, for a free-for-all in the infield before NASCAR’s first national TV audience.

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And he remembers when the feud between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison became so heated that during a news conference for a race at Riverside, Petty sat on one side of a restaurant and Allison on the other--about 25 yards apart.

“A little extracurricular activity can’t but help,” Hunter said. “We don’t want anybody hurt, but a little bammin’ and frammin’ is what NASCAR is all about. This is why it became so popular.”

The Stewart-Gordon feud, which both are trying to downplay in today’s nonconfrontational racing atmosphere, began two weeks ago on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y. The two were racing side by side on the second lap when Gordon tried to pass and Stewart crowded him into the guardrail. Gordon’s Chevrolet suffered extensive damage, and he fell a lap down and finished 23rd.

After the race, with the two team transporters next to each other in the paddock, the usually polite and soft-spoken Gordon yelled, “Next time you get alongside me, I’ll slam you into the wall the first chance I get.”

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Stewart, one of the feistiest drivers on the circuit, shouted at Gordon to “come over here and we’ll talk about it.” About that time, crewmen grabbed both of them and no punches were thrown.

“You’re always telling me to take it easy on the first lap,” Stewart screamed. “All I’m saying is make up your mind.”

Interest in their spat heightened interest in last Sunday’s Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway and the 170,000 fans weren’t shortchanged when NASCAR’s two brightest young drivers collided again.

Once again, Stewart took Gordon out, knocking his car into the wall and damaging the front end. This time, though, the usually brash Stewart took full responsibility and Gordon called it “just a racing accident.”

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Stewart was running second when his car got loose and touched leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car. After the brush, Stewart swerved and got sideways on the track, spinning into the oncoming Gordon.

“I just lost it,” Stewart said. “We were racing hard. It was my fault.”

This was quite a change from the Watkins Glen atmosphere.

Stewart, contrite after probably hearing from NASCAR officials who want the world to forget the pioneering days when feuds were part of the game, explained what happened a week earlier:

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“I think when something like what happened at Watkins Glen two weeks ago occurs, people make such a big deal out of it because it doesn’t happen that often. Hockey players get into fights and that’s part of the sport. But basketball and baseball players occasionally get in fights too.

“Jeff and I didn’t get in a fight. We had an argument. We had a disagreement. Granted, our language wasn’t the greatest and I do apologize for that, but it seems like in this sport, since it is such a clean sport, any time something just a little different happens, it tends to get blown up pretty big.”

Stewart also said that he and Gordon were together two days after the Watkins Glen incident, testing at Daytona.

“He came in and sat down at a meeting with me and said, ‘Are you still mad at me?’ and I said ‘No,’ because I wasn’t. That’s the truth. I still don’t agree with what happened, but I’m not mad about it. You can’t dwell on things like that in our sport and retain a competitive edge on everybody.”

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No, but a promoter like Hunter can dwell on it. And he hopes fans still are talking about it because he sees it as a big boost for ticket sales.

“You know what I’d like to do,” Hunter said from his Darlington office. “My colleagues at Daytona won’t like what I say, but my idea is if they tangle again, we put on a boxing match on the front straight. Have them get out of the cars, put on 16-ounce gloves and settle it before they go on to the next race.”

Hunter estimates that 6,000 extra seats were sold last year after Dale Earnhardt bumped Terry Labonte out of the lead to win the previous week at Bristol.

“It wouldn’t bother me at all if Stewart and Gordon had at it again Saturday night at Bristol,” said Hunter, chortling at the thought. “It’s drama. It’s rehumanizing NASCAR. It’s good for the sport.”

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And for the box office.

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Johnny Benson, who nearly won the Daytona 500 with an unsponsored car, will have Valvoline as co-owner of his No. 10 Pontiac next year. Valvoline, which had sponsored Mark Martin’s car since 1992 before Martin switched to Viagra for 2001, will share ownership with Nelson Bowers’ MB2 Motorsports. It will be the first time a major consumer products company will own a Winston Cup team.

CART CHAMP CARS

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Championship Auto Racing Teams’ annual preseason “Spring Training” probably is coming to California Speedway in Fontana after five years at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. Tentative dates are Jan. 8-10 with all CART drivers and teams in attendance. The CART season will open Feb. 11 in Rio de Janeiro, with the Long Beach Grand Prix to follow on March 11.

FORMULA ONE

It has long been puzzling to American racing fans what excites Grand Prix enthusiasts so much while watching a two-hour race with little or no passing--from green flag to checkered flag. Max Mosley, the FIA president, explained the intrigue to Tony Dodgins in On Track magazine:

“The chess game--where you might have one decisive moment in a race--builds infinitely more suspense than watching people pass each other every few seconds [as in a NASCAR or Indy car race].”

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OK, anyone for chess?

LAST LAPS

The MCI WorldCom TQ midgets return to Irwindale Speedway on Saturday night for a 20-lap main event that shares the spotlight with the track’s NASCAR super late models and Grand American modifieds. J.J. Ercse of Bellflower, a two-time Irwindale winner, holds a 31-point lead in quest of the U.S. Auto Club series crown he won in 1993.

Perris Auto Speedway will hold a potpourri of events Saturday night on the track’s Figure 8 course. There will be an extreme race on an up-and-down course, followed by a train race on the same layout. Additionally, cruisers will race on the half-mile oval, with the winning car being offered for $1,500.

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Roger Penske and Don Prudhomme were among four individuals elected to the Legends in Racing by members of the Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Assn. Also elected were former driver Eddie Sachs and car owner John Zink, who had winning Indy 500 cars in 1955 with Bob Sweikert and 1956 with Pat Flaherty. . . . Powered by an Infiniti Indy racing engine, a stock Infiniti Q45 was driven to a record 200.460 mph by Larry Detrich at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The old record was 188.114 for the E/Gas Coupe class.

Suzuki motocross rider Travis Pastrana, a member of the U.S. Motocross des Nations team, returned to his X Games roots to win the MotoX Freestyle gold medal again in San Francisco. This time, however, Pastrana did not vault his bike into San Francisco Bay as he did last year to celebrate winning. Last year his purse was withheld to cover fines while his bike was fished out of the bay. This time he collected his $15,000 prize.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

This Week’s Races

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WINSTON CUP, goracing.com 500

* When: Today, first-round qualifying, 2 p.m. (ESPN2); Saturday, second-round qualifying, 10:45 a.m.; race (ESPN, 4:30 p.m.)

* Where: Bristol Motor Speedway (oval, .533 miles, 36 degrees banking in turns), Bristol, Tenn.

* Race distance: 266.5 miles, 500 laps.

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* Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt.

* Next race: Southern 500, Sept. 3, Darlington, S.C.

BUSCH GRAND NATIONAL, Food City 250

* When: Today, qualifying, 12:30 p.m.; race (ESPN, 4 p.m.)

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* Where: Bristol Motor Speedway (oval, .533 miles, 36 degrees banking in turns), Bristol, Tenn.

* Race distance: 133.25 miles, 250 laps.

* Defending champion: Matt Kenseth.

* Last race: Todd Bodine, who had gone winless in 69 races dating to 1997, held off Michael Waltrip to take the NAPAonline.com 250 by .192 seconds in Brooklyn, Mich.

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* Next race: Dura Lube 200, Sept. 2, Darlington, S.C.

CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS, Sears Craftsman 175

* When: Saturday, qualifying, noon; Sunday, race (ESPN, 9:30 a.m.)

* Where: Chicago Motor Speedway (oval, 1 mile), Cicero, Ill.

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* Race distance: 175 miles, 175 laps.

* Defending champion: Inaugural event.

* Last race: Randy Tolsma ended a 73-race victory drought, beating Dennis Setzer by 1.402 seconds to win the Federated Auto Parts 250 in Nashville, Tenn.

* Next race: Richmond 200, Sept. 7, Richmond, Va.

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IRL, Belterra Resort Indy 300

* When: Saturday, qualifying, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN2, 2 p.m., tape); Sunday, race (ESPN, 11:30 a.m.)

* Where: Kentucky Speedway (tri-oval, 1.5 miles, 14 degrees banking in turns), Sparta, Ky.

* Race distance: 300 miles 200 laps.

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* Defending champion: Inaugural event.

* Last race: Greg Ray dominated the Midas 500 Classic in Hampton, Ga., reaching victory lane for the first time this season.

* Next race: Mall.com 500, Oct. 15, Fort Worth, Texas.

FORMULA ONE, Belgian Grand Prix

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* When: Saturday, qualifying (Speedvision, 4 a.m.); Sunday, race (Speedvision, 4:30 a.m.)

* Where: Spa Francorchamps (road course, 4.329 miles), Spa Francorchamps.

* Race distance: 190.476 miles, 44 laps.

* Defending champion: David Coulthard.

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* Next race: Italian Grand Prix, Sept. 10, Monza.


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