Hard-boiled Stewart shows funny side

CONCORD, N.C. -- Tony Stewart is relaxed and deadpanning one-liners like a polished comedian.

He's standing in front of a World War II tank killer, used in the "Battle of the Bulge," during a Tuesday media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The veins aren't bulging in his neck and he's not ready to throw a temper tantrum, or a helmet -- as he did Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"Where was this when I needed it on Saturday?" the three-time Sprint Cup champion jokes before climbing into the tank as part of a promotion for sponsor Mobil 1. "Can you bring it to Atlanta?"

Most of us never will fully understand the intensity drivers feel when they get behind the wheel for a race. We'll never understand how some can be so calm away from the track and act like a crazed maniac in the car.

But it happens to the best of them.

It happened to mild-mannered Jeff Gordon two years ago at Texas when he went kung fu on Jeff Burton after a wreck. It happened to soft-spoken Trevor Bayne when he got in Austin Dillon's face after a late run-in during Friday night's Nationwide race at Bristol.

It happened to Stewart Saturday night, when he tossed his helmet at Matt Kenseth after the two wrecked battling for the lead on Lap 334.

Not that Stewart ever would be described as mild-mannered or soft-spoken, but he is a different person away from the pressures of competition, just like Kyle and Kurt Busch are. Most drivers to varying degrees are.

"We're not racing for anything today," Stewart says. "It's no different than going to the bar and having a drink with your friends, and then going to do your job. It's two totally different things."

Most fans don't understand what pushes seemingly sane men -- and women, as we saw when Danica Patrick wagged her finger in anger at Regan Smith after a Saturday crash -- to behave like spoiled bullies during the heat of competition.

"It's hard to explain what you're up against inside that car," Clint Bowyer says. "It's so intense. Things are happening so fast, you do flare up. Nine times out of 10 you're over it and don't even remember it."

The best way to describe it is to imagine the road rage you feel after somebody cuts you off after being stuck in traffic for an hour -- and multiply it by 10.

And then imagine that your livelihood depends on it.

"You look at baseball," Stewart says. "Half the inning those guys get to relax, sit on the bench and get ready for the other half of the inning. Once we start, we're in there and intense the whole day.

"Even the cautions are intense, because that's when you're doing a majority of your communicating with your team."

It's a constant found in few other sports. You'll see that intensity ramp up even more during the next 12 weeks as drivers fight to make the Chase and then win it.

But one thing Stewart learned years ago is not to let a grudge or on-track disagreement carry over. He understands that won't help either party reach the ultimate goal of a title.

Stewart also learned last season that getting caught up in how bad things are going isn't necessarily smart.

Remember how Stewart was heading into the 2011 Chase? He was so distraught over his team performance that he already had decided to change crew chiefs for 2012. He was so unhappy with the way things were going that he said "we're wasting one of those top 12 spots right now."

Then he won the first two Chase races and three other times to edge Carl Edwards for his third title.

"It was a good lesson for everybody," Stewart says. "This sport, the technology changes so fast. It wasn't like something just came into our organization and turned it around. It's proof you can be in a slump and it can turn around literally in a week.

"From that side, it gives anybody that's going to be in the Chase -- no matter how good or bad they're running -- that example it can be done from wherever you're at."

That's another reason Stewart is so relaxed only a few days after the wreck with Kenseth left him 10th in points, only 16 from falling out of the top 10 who are assured a playoff spot and bonus points for wins.

He was in almost the same position last year after Bristol -- 10th in points and only 21 from falling out of the top 10.

"We're still going to be in it," says Stewart, whose three wins all but lock him into at least a wild-card position. "It won't be advantageous to drop out of the top 10. But we didn't have those bonus points last year and we were able to come back."

What Stewart did last season reaffirmed just how small the gap is between being a championship contender and a pretender. What he did allows him and others to approach the stretch run to the regular season with less panic.

It allows him to get over days like Saturday.

"I don't enjoy getting mad," Stewart says. "It doesn't make my day. I wasn't happy when I did it. I wasn't happy when it was over. I wasn't happy when I got home."

But Stewart is happy on this day, even though one of the vehicles fans voted for him to drive is a Chevrolet Astro minivan.

"I pray to God I don't have to drive the minivan," jokes Stewart, who was selected to drive the van, tank and a drifting car.

His demeanor is totally different from the one he has at the track, when he takes advantage of the slightest pause in questions to make a quick exit from his weekly media availability. He answers questions on this day for more than 20 minutes, and would have hung around longer had he not been so eager to drive the tank.

By the way, it wasn't his first time driving a tank, which is a story for another day.

But you get the picture. Away from the intensity of competition, Stewart is laid-back and fun-loving. Maybe that's why he was so impressed with the classy way Edwards handled losing last year's title in a tiebreaker. He knows it might have taken him a few days to get to that point.

Maybe that's why Stewart is so impressed with the way Edwards is handling the disappointment of this season, 12th in points with no wins that has him on the verge of missing the Chase.

"You know it's got to be frustrating for Carl, and Carl probably deals with it better than anybody would," Stewart says.

Edwards' situation also is another example of how fine the line is between being good and average. At this point a year ago, Edwards was fourth in points and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle was 16th.

Today, Biffle leads the points and Edwards is 12th.

"This sport is so competitive," Biffle says. "The amount is almost immeasurable between being able to win and running 12th."

The gap between keeping one's cool and losing it is just as tight. In the split second it took for Kenseth to wreck Stewart, Stewart went from a potential fourth win and lock for the Chase to throwing a helmet.

Almost just as fast, he went to laid-back Stewart driving a tank and feeling like a championship contender again.

"I don't know how anybody could feel they're out of it no matter how bad you're running going in it," Stewart says, again referring to last season. "We were not on our game. In Chicago [for the Chase opener] it started and turned it around.

"The hard part is everybody has seen it can happen that way, so it probably gives everybody confidence it can be done."

That's something we all can understand better now.