Originally created 11/15/02

Competition could be taken out of championship chase



HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- No driver wants to cause the accident that would knock Tony Stewart or Mark Martin out of the final Winston Cup race.

So most of the field will be extra careful at Homestead-Miami Speedway when they see Stewart or Martin in their rearview mirror. Missing a mark, misjudging a closing speed or bobbling just the slightest bit could change the outcome of the championship.

Entering Sunday's race, Stewart holds an 89-point advantage over Martin.

"You certainly don't want to be the guy who ruins the day for one of them," said Jeff Burton, Martin's teammate at Roush Racing. "So you always have to be aware of who is around you, and if it's one of them, not do anything stupid."

The idea that the 42 cars around him might give him a free pass disgusts Stewart.

"This is just one of 36 races. We all have to race hard, and if 43 guys don't race to win this weekend, I'll be very disappointed," Stewart said.

"I have a responsibility with what I do in my car this weekend, and I don't expect anybody else to change the way they race."

Regardless, there will be drivers in the field neither Stewart nor Martin will want to be around. Some just have a reputation of making reckless moves.

Just last week, Stewart had to avoid a wreck involving Robby Gordon and Scott Wimmer. Afterward, Stewart was less than thrilled with Gordon.

"If he can't race guys, he just wrecks guys," Stewart said after the race. "He's been a weapon ever since he's been in Winston Cup racing."

Joe Gibbs, Stewart's car owner, knows there are some cars on the track that can make the entire team a little skittish when they approach.

They know all too well that odd things can happen. In the spring race at Darlington, Stewart was leading when Buckshot Jones crashed into his car as Stewart tried to put him a lap down. Stewart spent the night in the hospital.

"I can tell from talking to our drivers that there are certain people that they don't mind racing next to and other people where they are more concerned," Gibbs said.

"You can kind of hear it and you can hear it in the voice of the spotter and you can hear it in our crew chiefs. You don't like to have any personality conflicts on the track when you're in this position. So, yeah, I think you worry about that."

One thing neither driver will have to worry about is interference from the other's teammates.

Bobby Labonte, Stewart's teammate and the 2000 Winston Cup champion, will be rooting for Stewart but won't help him by blocking Martin.

And Martin's three Roush Racing teammates have no intention of blocking the road to hold up Stewart.

"We are one race team that races four cars, but the feeling of fair play does pervade the team," car owner Jack Roush said. "The guys, I'm sure, without any conversation, will give him every consideration to have clean track and an opportunity to do what he needs to do."

Roush has appealed a 25-point penalty Martin was assessed earlier this month for having an unapproved spring in a race in Rockingham, N.C.

Stewart can clinch his first title by finishing 22nd, should Martin win the race and lead the most laps. But a restoration of 25 points would force Stewart to finish 13th should Martin have his best possible result.

The three-member National Auto Racing Commission will hear the appeal Saturday.

"I'm not bitter," Martin said. "It doesn't bother me unless it falls into that area where the 25 points would make a difference in the championship."