Impatient, impish, introspective. Tony Stewart is all of them, and one more -- an emerging superstar on the Winston Cup circuit.

The NASCAR numbers crunchers compare his rookie season to those of Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and the late Davey Allison, and the 1997 Indy Racing League champion is a legitimate fit.

But he's a rookie in name only. He's been driving cars -- and doing it very well -- since before he was a teenager.

"When people compare us, I correct them quickly," said Gordon, the top rookie of 1993. "I tore up a whole lot more race cars than he has. I wasn't as smooth and as patient."

Patience, however, is something the sometimes-testy Stewart can lack when off the track. Last weekend, at Pocono International Raceway, he complained that a photographer was taking too much time to set up a shot. The photographer said it took less than a minute.

Stewart admitted that he has not always been successful with the media.

"Trust me, there are things that I wish I hadn't said," he explained, attributing his reputation in part to the frustration of not winning more often in the IRL. "After three years of that, I wasn't a very happy person, and I didn't appear to be a very nice person."

So, perhaps the biggest problem for the 28-year-old driver from Rushville, Ind., is trying to adjust to all the pressure from the media. It peaked last month, when he became the first driver to complete the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

And with Stewart just two points behind three-time champion Gordon in the race for fifth place in the Winston Cup standings, the demands have eased only slightly.

"We have seven of you guys in here all at once," Stewart said. "Well, it's a lot easier to do this in one shot than to take five or 10 minutes seven times a day."

The interview was crammed into a day during which Stewart raced to his souvenir trailer three times for autograph sessions.

When he arrived back at the hauler of Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart the imp resurfaced. As crew chief Greg Zipadelli was talking about the best NASCAR rookie in the last dozen years, his driver was making things difficult.

Finally, after a smiling Stewart had tickled Zipadelli's ear for a second time, the crew chief swatted at him, as if warding off an annoying fly.

Stewart figures to be more than that for years to come as part of the Gibbs powerhouse led by established star Bobby Labonte. Stewart could become the first rookie to win a race since Allison in 1987 and the first ever to finish in the top five in Winston Cup points.

Stewart is flattered to be compared with the great NASCAR rookies.

"But I'm not patterning my career after Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon," he said. "I'm more worried about what Tony Stewart does."



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Points Leaders

1. Dale Jarrett2,344

2. Bobby Labonte2,255

3. Jeff Burton2,158

4. Mark Martin2,153

5. Jeff Gordon1,995

6. Tony Stewart1,993

7. Dale Earnhardt 1,869

8. Ward Burton1,819

9. Jeremy Mayfield 1,784

10. Terry Labonte 1,758

Money Leaders

1. Jeff Gordon$3,587,401

2. Jeff Burton$2,634,186

3. Bobby Labonte $1,639,331

4. Dale Jarrett $1,545,939

5. Dale Earnhardt$1,504,444

6. Terry Labonte $1,322,366

7. Mark Martin$1,280,921

8. Mike Skinner $1,175,676

9. Kenny Irwin$1,115,311

10. Rusty Wallace$1,061,759

-- Through Pocono 500, June 20


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Points Leaders

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.2,264

2. Matt Kenseth2,200

3. Jeff Green 2,016

4. Elton Sawyer1,960

5. Todd Bodine1,908

6. Jason Keller1,850

7. Jeff Purvis1,845

8. Mike McLaughlin 1,676

9. Dave Blaney1,640

9. Casey Atwood1,640

-- Through Textilease/Medique 300, June 12

CAPTION: If his rookie season is a sign of things to come, Tony Stewart, center, has a promising career ahead of him. The 28-year-old is just two points behind three-time champion Jeff Gordon for fifth place in the Winston Cup standings.