Tony Stewart was a miserable NASCAR Cup champion in 2002.
He shoved a photographer that season. He lashed out at fans and bullied drivers. He was a regular visitor in NASCAR’s doghouse, spending parts of the season on probation.
NASCAR even forced him to attend anger management training.
If there was turmoil to be found, even within his Joe Gibbs Racing team, "Terrible Tony" found it.
"2002 was probably one of the worst personal years in my life even though it was one of the most gratifying professional years of my life as far as winning a championship," Stewart said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway, where he’ll race in the Checker Auto Parts 500 on Sunday.
But life is much better these days for the 34-year-old driver. He’s in position to win another championship (he leads the points race by 38 over Jimmie Johnson with two races to go), but this time around he’s enjoying the ride.
"It’ll mean 10 times more if we can (win a championship) this year with the way the year has been," Stewart said. "I think the entire team will enjoy it more."
Outside of a few run-ins with primary Chase for the Nextel Cup challenger Johnson, and verbal pingpong with driver Greg Biffle and Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, Stewart has been more relaxed and jokes and smiles more during his seventh season racing in NASCAR’s premier series.
"He’s definitely mellowed a bit," said Jeff Gordon, who watched Stewart unseat him as champion in 2002. "He’s always been a tough competitor on the racetrack, but sometimes it affected him more than it should."
Why the change in Stewart in 2005? Maturity, Stewart said, and learning from life and racing experiences.
"I guess we kind of know what to expect," Stewart said. "We kind of know some of the things of how to deal with it better so you don’t let the stress get to you. . . ."
"Terrible Tony" was nowhere to be found Friday at PIR during an interview with a roomful of media.
At one point he grabbed a reporter’s ringing cell phone and answered the call, turning the moment into an improvised comedy bit.
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, understands why Stewart is handling this run for the Nextel Cup much better than in 2002.
"The second time you’re going for a championship —after you’ve won one — it’s always sweeter because you don’t feel as much pressure. You feel more relaxed. You feel like you have a better idea of what to expect," Gordon said.
Stewart’s relaxed, and sometimes comical, persona in PIR’s media center on Friday was in stark contrast to his temperament displayed at NASCAR’s stop in Phoenix during his 2002 championship run.
He was in a sour mood when he arrived at the track. His points lead was 112 over Mark Martin with two races remaining — the Checker Auto Parts 500 at PIR and the season-ending race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
A bunch of newspaper reporters had requested a press conference with the points leader prior to the practice and qualifying sessions at PIR. Stewart made the appearance and was combative, edgy and bitterly sarcastic. Not exactly a happy champion-in-waiting.
More than a week later, a grumpy Stewart went on to win the Cup title by 38 points over Martin.
But Stewart is putting that championship in his rearview mirror.
Because the chance of winning a championship and — actually enjoying it — looms ahead.
"It would be everything to me," Stewart said. "That’s why I want to win so bad this year."