In NASCAR country, folks say Tony Stewart's return to his idyllic hometown has made him a better competitor. The compact, 5-ft. 9-in. driver abandoned the Charlotte, N.C., area--the roaring capital of stock-car racing--and returned to cozy Columbus, Ind. Sure enough, with just three races to go, he was the leader in this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup, stock-car racing's grand prize. What has changed? Well, he spends a lot more time hanging with his friends and being a good neighbor. In short, the locals say, he has mellowed out.
Don't buy it. Here's what Mr. Mellow had to say after a recent race about fellow NASCAR driver Greg Biffle: "That guy is an idiot ... right now if he came over here I'm afraid I'd have to strangle him." Stewart had just finished a close second to Jeff Gordon, ahead of Jimmie Johnson, on the half-mile, bumper-to-bumper, fun-house oval at Martinsville, Va. Biffle, about to get lapped on a restart, had played chicken with him, nearly causing a crash. The fact is, Stewart's mouth doesn't have a brake. He is incapable of being anything but candid. The last time something like that happened, he crossed the finish line, then tried to spear a rival with his car as if the guy were a postrace hors d'oeuvre. "Tony wears it on his sleeve," says NBC's NASCAR expert and fellow driver Wally Dallenbach, who applauds Stewart's passion. "We have enough robots in this business."
The Chase for the Nextel Cup, in its second season, has given stock-car racing a play-off format that helps NASCAR compete for fans' attention in the fall, when football is in full swing and baseball play-offs are under way. The Top 10 racers fight it out over the last 10 races--you score points based on how you finish and for lead laps--for the overall driving title. "All the emotion of a championship that other sports had is now part of our sport," says NASCAR president Mike Helton.
Stewart, 34, is one of the reasons why. He's so skilled, he could pass another car on a bowling alley. And he obviously hasn't relaxed one r.p.m. on the track. "Trust me," he tells TIME, "when it's time to be aggressive, I can still be aggressive. I haven't forgotten how to do that." He won five of the tour's 26 regular races, and going into last weekend's race in Fort Worth, Texas, he had a 43-point lead in the Chase over a posse including Johnson, Biffle, Kyle Busch and veterans Rusty Wallace, 49, and Mark Martin, 46, who are on their last laps before retiring this year. That seems like enough of a cushion. Then again, this is NASCAR: 43 racers start each event, but there are more parts than cars at the finish. One wreck, and the standings could shift dramatically.