Thursday, May 6, 2004 Updated: May 7, 8:23 AM ET
Fire and ice team going strong
By Rupen Fofaria Special to ESPN.com
Joe Gibbs has got his work cut out for him trying to build a Super Bowl Champion in Washington, D.C. It's a good thing the champions he left behind at the racetrack are keeping up with the status quo.
The fiery Tony Stewart burns as hot as ever. The calm and collected Bobby Labonte is as cool as ever. And, lo and behold, the two are perched in the top 10 of the NASCAR Nextel Cup points race.
Labonte has made a hard push up the standings recently, finally breaking the top 10 and now sitting at ninth. He would have gained more ground had he not run out of gas last Sunday. Labonte had the fastest car over the closing laps at California, sitting in second and gaining ground fast on eventual winner Jeff Gordon. But when the fuel dried up, he fell to fifth.
Afterward, he didn't complain. In fact, he was just thankful for the high finish.
"It was a good day for us to finish fifth," he said. "With that second place that we had going there it's hard to complain too much."
A reaction one can't help but doubt would ever come from Labonte's teammate.
Stewart has gone on a bit of a skid, with four finishes outside the top 15 in his last six races, but he's fallen only as far back as eighth in the standings -- heading to a racetrack where he excels (Richmond) and staring at a second-half schedule that has always been kind to him.
And before all of that starts, he's got a weekend off to take a break and cool down. If you ask his competitors, that's exactly what he needs. Stewart brought out a huge wreck at Talladega, which he blamed on the restrictor plate package in use at the track, and then he got into altercations with Rusty Wallace, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon last weekend at California.
"I don't know what's wrong with the guy," Wallace said. "I like the fellow. He's a good friend. I don't know. He's really screwing up a lot lately. He got me in the back really hard at Bristol. He got me in the back at Martinsville. He caused a huge wreck last week at Talladega and then he runs me right through the fence this time.
"I'm on the outside right up against the wall and he comes flying up and drives through -- knocks the ball joint off, knocks the side off of it. He completely ruins the car.
"Then he pulls up beside me and starts flipping me off on the restart. I wanted to get out of the car and whip his rear end. The kid needs to calm down a little bit. I don't know what's wrong with him. He's really frustrated for some reason."
Joe Gibbs, right, and Tony Stewart won the 2002 Cup championship.
Wallace is a guy who has criticized the media in the past for being too scrutinizing and critical of Stewart. Now, he says, he's in no mood.
"I'm not sticking up for him right now," Wallace said. "I'm about sick of his childish actions. The boy needs to grow up a little bit. He's frustrated I guess, but he's got to keep his emotions in check. I'm tired of getting taken out by him. It's ridiculous."
But Gibbs isn't worried about that. He knows Stewart is an emotional character. He knows that he drives with passion and his passion drives him, and that a Stewart without the fire isn't the Stewart that Gibbs hired.
So while he puts together a plan for the Redskins, he need take only one glance at the standings and understand that his controversial driver is doing just fine. In the meantime, Gibbs has his son holding down the fort.
"That was just kind of racing there," J.D. Gibbs said. "On the Jeff deal, (Tony's) spotter was talking over there and he apologized to (crew chief) Greg (Zipadelli) and said that he screwed that up. That was just a mistake on our part in not giving him information."
As for the other incidents, Gibbs said it was just racing, and nothing to have a conversation with Stewart about. For his part, Stewart knows that he messed up at some point in Sunday's race. But, as for Wallace, he had no apologies.
"He wants to talk about what I did to him at Bristol? Well, I remember a day when drivers were a little more cordial than they are today, and that when a faster driver came up, guys like Mark Martin -- guys who respect everybody -- would let them go and then work on their car and come back and get them later on in the race," Stewart said. "But Rusty's not that way. He's out for Rusty.
"It's easy to point fingers at a guy when he's down. I'll just take it, I guess, and go on. But if he wants to point fingers then he can keep pointing fingers. I used to have a lot of respect for him, too. He wants to talk about respect, well, he had the opportunity to show me respect at Bristol and he didn't do it. So, I don't know what he's complaining about. He's got nothing to complain about."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.