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A very 'Happy Tony'
Stewart wins Nationwide race; on to 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Swarmed by the autograph-seekers who often have caused him angst, Tony Stewart patiently made his way to his car Saturday for one final practice before the Daytona 500.

He wasn't snarling.

He maybe even cracked a smile. And that was before he won Saturday's race.

It was a mellower version of the two-time Cup champion, who was cranky when he reported to Speedweeks and needed just one day at the track to become the center of attention. On-track contact with Kurt Busch led to an off-track confrontation - Stewart allegedly punched Busch during a meeting with NASCAR - and both drivers enter today's season-opener on six weeks' probation.

The incident behind him, Stewart seemingly has relaxed as he's set out to win his first Daytona 500.

He was "Happy Tony" following his Nationwide Series win, joking that he'd pass on posing for a commemorative bobble-head doll like good friend Kevin Harvick.

"I just think I want to be the first driver to come out with a bobble belly," Stewart quipped.

It was a far cry from the "Terrible Tony" who so often has cropped up over the past 10 years.

Stewart's remembered for his many blowups, not his jokes. Although he admits his image as a hot-tempered loose cannon is "self inflicted," Stewart would do anything to shake his past.

"The stuff like the opening night of practice doesn't help it, obviously," he said. "But what you saw there versus four or five years ago is a totally different me. No matter how hard I try to do things right, if I make the smallest of mistakes, it all reverts back to what I did five or six years ago. That's where it gets so frustrating.

"All I want to do is get away from the past. That's my goal, to get away from it."

But he can't. And probably never will.

It's because Stewart has had more than his share of controversy through nine rocky seasons. Yes, he's won 32 races and a pair of Cup titles. But he has tangled with fans, media and NASCAR along the way, even punching a photographer following a bitter 2002 defeat at Indy.

Stewart enters today's race with yet another opportunity to win NASCAR's marquee race, with a No. 20 team that once again has been strong throughout Speedweeks. But few want to discuss his strong new Toyota or his bid to put a Camry in Victory Lane for the 50th running of the Daytona 500. They don't talk about his win in Saturday's Nationwide Series race.

The focus instead still lingers on everything from his confrontation with Busch, his mood swings and the unruly mane of hair he's tried - but failed - to keep tucked under a hat.

Although he joked Saturday that he'd let the media he so often spars with cut his overgrown hair if he wins the 500, nothing irritates him more than the overwhelming attention placed on anything but on-track results.

He dreads pre-race introductions, when the drivers all make a ceremonial lap around the track. Often booed the entire time, Stewart said it bothers him enough to make him not want to race.

He recounts an incident from earlier this week, when a young boy standing with his father booed at Stewart as he headed toward his race car.

"I was thinking, 'Kid, what did I ever do to you?' That's the thing I always think," Stewart said. "What have I directly done to that kid to make him do that?

"I dread getting in that car and going around that track. You get to the point where you start asking yourself every week, 'Why do I do this?"'

It's the sensitive side to this bear of a man, and the answer is because he loves racing.

He would have won the exhibition Budweiser Shootout if a late caution didn't give Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Hendrick Motorsports fleet the opportunity to grab it from him.

Five days later, he repaid the favor, yielding victory to teammate Denny Hamlin in their qualifying race and helped hold off Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon.

The near-misses at Daytona don't eat him alive. Not the way failures at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway do. If Stewart never adds the Daytona 500 to his resume, he won't feel the same void Indy has created.

"I don't want that to come across as I don't care that much about (Daytona)," Stewart said. "It's just different when you grow up around Indianapolis. It's a different feeling than it is coming to Daytona. But I know what Daytona means to NASCAR, to our fans, to Joe Gibbs Racing, to Zippy (Stewart's crew chief).

"I know what it means to have the opportunity to say we won the big one in stock car racing. I don't have that same feeling, but it doesn't mean I don't appreciate what this race means to everybody."

When Speedweeks is over, he wants the conversation to center on his performance on the track. Not his shenanigans off it.

"It all goes back to I signed up to drive race cars," he said. "That's all I want to do."

SideBar: Daytona 500

When: Today, 2 p.m.

Where: Daytona International Speedway,

Daytona, Fla.

TV: Fox