Stewart says it's time to shape up

NEW YORK -- Tony Stewart went on a shopping spree last week
that he hopes will lead to a new and improved Nextel Cup champion.

"I went out and bought $17,000 worth of exercise equipment for
my house," Stewart said Wednesday as he prepared for yet another
of the dozens of media events this week in New York, leading up to
Friday night's NASCAR awards ceremony at which he will collect
checks for more than $5.8 million.

Most of that goes to his Joe Gibbs Racing team, but Stewart will
certainly keep more than enough of it to consider his latest
shopping trip pocket money. And, he said it will certainly be worth
it as an important next step in his maturation process.

The 5-foot-9 Stewart, who probably weighs at least 20 pounds more than the 185 listed in the NASCAR media guide, admittedly
loves fast food and has often made himself the brunt of his own
jokes about how out of shape he is.

Earlier this year, he celebrated several of his five race
victories by climbing the grandstand fence and clambering onto the
flagstand as thousands of fans cheered the effort.

"I'm way too old and too fat to be doing that," he said at the

"I'm going to get in shape for next year," Stewart said
Wednesday. "I've got to. As you get older, your body changes and I
can't do the kind of things I used to do, like eat three
cheeseburgers on my way home and then eat dinner an hour later.

"I'm tired of puffing and panting when I climb up two flights
of stairs. I've got to start taking better care of myself."

The first step, he said, will be getting together with a
nutritionist to talk about diet.

"Then all I need to do is stay away from the McDonald's
drive-up window and not use all that new equipment to hang my
clothes on," Stewart said, grinning.

Don't bet against him.

The two-time Cup winner is already a changed man since he won
his first title in 2002. That year, Stewart wore his quick temper
like a badge of courage, often battling with other drivers,
photographers, writers and even the fans.

By the time he got to New York to celebrate that championship,
Stewart was tired of it all and just wanted to get the year-end
awards over with and step out of the spotlight.

Not so this year.

The newest version of Tony Stewart is a mature 34-year-old with
a grin, a quick quip at the ready and a happy smile.

Tuesday, he visited the New York Fire Department's training
facility. Wednesday morning he led the other nine drivers from the
season-ending Chase for the championship on a short -- loud -- drive
through the streets of Manhattan in a slow parade of race cars.

"Man, it was really fun to see all those people out there
smiling and waving and enjoying seeing the drivers and the cars,"
Stewart said. "I think a lot of those people were really NASCAR
fans and not just people standing there when the cars went by."

Asked if he was having fun, Stewart raised his eyebrows in
apparent surprise at the question.

"Sure, this is great," he said. "I'm really enjoying

Stewart credits much of the change in attitude to moving back to
his hometown of Columbus, Ind., earlier this year.

"That was the start of it," Stewart said. "I just needed to
be in a place where people just let me be myself and not have other
expectations. And it was nice not to go out to a restaurant and
keep seeing the same car owners and drivers that you see on the
weekends. You were always in kind of a fishbowl, with people
watching to see what you did.

"I'm not a celebrity kind of guy. I'm just a simple guy. I like
to spend my time with my friends, playing video games or playing
pool or just hanging around the house. I don't need or want fame.
But I feel like now I can at least handle what I'm got."

As for slimming down before the 2006 season, Stewart is a man on
a mission.

"I've made a lot of changes in my life and I'm sure I'm going
to make a lot more," he said. "This is just the next one."