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High-stakes driver plays it cool in poker

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, April 10, 2008 10:21 am
As I pull up the top left corner of my hole cards to take another peek, I decide I've got a hand that's worth taking a risk. So, I throw out my bet.I'm all in.

“You're all in, already?” a voice from across the table questions, and I glance up to see a look of skepticism. I figure the strategy has worked for me more than once. I'll go with it.

But when I realize that voice across the table belongs to NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, I'm stunned. Not because I'm playing poker with one of the most recognizable and polarizing stock car drivers around. Not because Stewart is actually engaging members of the media without piling on his trademark cache of sarcasm and disdain.

No, I'm sitting there in disbelief, asking myself, “Is this the same Tony Stewart that gambles every time he pulls in the pits during a caution? Does he take tires or does he take fuel? Is this the same Tony Stewart who decides to go all in when he's committing to a high track position to make his move? Is this the same Tony Stewart, questioning my risk strategy, whose life insurance risk assessor probably has a lifetime supply of antacid?”

Well, it is the same Tony Stewart. And maybe he knows more than I do about poker, because I lost.

Game over.

As I watched Stewart handle his chips and look over his cards, it became apparent that he knows a thing or two about risk, including when to take one. Kenny Rogers' song “The Gambler” comes to mind.

It all comes down to the strategy of the day. My strategy for Wednesday's Lifelock 400 media day at the Motor City Casino in Detroit, Mich., was to either win fast or go down in a ball of flames. I started off winning fast, and there was Stewart across the table looking like he was getting set up for a bonfire.

Soon he cracks a smirk. Finally, a hand worth playing, Stewart figures it's time to makes his move. Next thing we know most of us are on the outside looking in while he stacks column after column of $100 and $500 chips in front of him.

He's been in fights already this season. He's gone on tirades about tires. But NASCAR driver Tony Stewart says this has been one of his best years on the track. Most of all, he says he's having fun.

Two top-five finishes, third at Daytona, and second at Atlanta, have Stewart where he wants to be - within striking distance of Jeff Burton, who sits atop the Nextel Sprint Cup Series points standings.

Heading into Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Stewart and his Toyota-powered No. 20 car are only 108 points off the Series lead.

“There's all kinds of gambling in racing,” Stewart says with a chuckle while shuffling his chips. “Every time the caution comes out, especially late in the race. Do you take two tires, four tires; do you not take any tires? Do you take fuel only?”

Just like his game of poker, Stewart is holding steady on the quiet front in NASCAR. After an early season fight with Kurt Busch, and his tirade in Atlanta over the Goodyear tires, Stewart has calmed down.

“What's been going on (lately) is actually normal,” Stewart says. “It's not by design. It's really who I am. I'm passionate about what I do, and if I feel like somebody does me wrong, then I do what I do.”

“Everybody expects me to be (a certain) way, and it's not necessarily the way we are every day, but I'm not taking a vacation from who I am. I'm sure something will happen.”

Despite being in the final year of his Joe Gibbs Racing contract, Stewart says he anticipates finishing his career - whenever that may be - with JGR, due largely to the season he's having right now. Stewart owns three racetracks, four race teams, a trucking company and a remote control car company, so he has other things on his mind, but he says he's going to be around awhile.

“We haven't got a win yet, but I've had more fun with my team this year than I think we've ever had,” Stewart says. “Even without the win, I feel like I've driven some of the best races of my career that nobody would notice from watching the race.”

Soon Stewart starts throwing chips around because he's got a plane to catch. Sunday's race in Phoenix is looming and it's time to get back to business. But luck is on his side, and the dealer keeps raking chips toward Stewart's spot at the table.

I suppose you could be talking about racing or poker, but it really does come down to whether or not you “know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em.”

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