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Stewart Is OK With NASCAR

Times Staff Writer

Few places in the country seemed hotter Sunday than California Speedway, which played host to hot-under-the-collar drivers and hot-all-over patrons.

Rusty Wallace was doing more than a slow burn in a television interview during the NASCAR Nextel Cup Auto Club 500, the 1989 series champion letting loose on Tony Stewart, the 2002 series champ whose driving at Talladega a week earlier had drawn criticism from several quarters, including NASCAR.

Wallace accused Stewart of again driving recklessly on the two-mile Fontana oval and running him into the wall. Among other things, Wallace said that Stewart was “messing with the wrong guy with that mouth of his right now.”

But NASCAR on Monday said, no harm, no foul. Well, at least no foul.

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“We addressed Tony Stewart’s driving before [Friday’s] practice started at California and there was nothing that happened on the race track [Sunday] that we would term anything other than a racing incident,” said Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president of communications.

“I don’t know if Rusty’s had a chance to review film or video of the race, but it was just a racing accident. [Stewart] got loose. That happens. It just happened to be Tony Stewart.”

Stewart, who underwent anger-management counseling at the direction of his Home Depot sponsor two years ago, has been remarkably proficient at finding controversy on the track recently. He also banged doors with eventual winner Jeff Gordon, and drove behind Ricky Rudd and briefly lifted Rudd’s Ford off the pavement with the nose of his Chevrolet.

A week earlier at Talladega, Stewart touched off a 10-car crash after running into Kurt Busch’s car. When the race was over and fans were throwing debris onto the track after Jeff Gordon’s yellow-flag victory over fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart abruptly turned in front of Terry Labonte, damaging his front end, and drove the wrong way down pit road to return to the garage.

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“Tony has a way of picking up the bull’s-eye,” Hunter said. “When stuff happens with Tony, he becomes an obvious target. He’s a hard charger, there’s no doubt about that. But so is Rusty and a lot of other drivers, and that’s one of the things that makes our sport so great.”

Hunter also said NASCAR was not going to reprimand Wallace for his on-air comments.

While Wallace was fuming, many fans were going to the care center at California Speedway.

Bill Miller, speedway president, said nearly 1,000 people were treated by on-site medical facilities, almost all for heat-related issues. The speedway has eight permanent first-aid buildings and the infield care center. There were 92,000 fans in the grandstands, and about 20,000 in the infield.

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The reported temperature at the speedway Sunday was 98.6 degrees with a track temperature of 139.7.

Speedway spokesman Dennis Bickmeier said the speedway used 18 misting machines, six behind the terrace suites in the garage area, and 12 spread behind the grandstands and midway. The public address system advised fans to hydrate themselves. Bottled water sold for $3, but the track has more than 25 drinking fountains.

Concessionaires were still doing inventory on Monday, but Bickmeier said more than 70,000 bottles of soda and lemonade were consumed, and at least 80,000 bottles of water.

“The ultimate goal is fan comfort, but it’s 100 degrees and you’re in the sun for a 3 1/2-hour race,” Bickmeier said. “The fans were smart as well. I saw a lot of them seeking relief under the grandstands, taking breaks.”

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At least one bottle was thrown from the stands at Gordon’s Chevrolet after his victory. “You hope someone in their area would help identify them,” Bickmeier said. “All we need is for someone to report a row, section and seat number.”


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