JOLIET, Ill. (AP) – Maybe Tony Stewart should just skip Fridays at Chicagoland Speedway.

For the second straight year, Stewart crashed during the Friday practice, forcing him to move to a backup car.

A year ago, it was just a bump in the road. The uninjured Stewart jumped into the backup car later the same day, qualified 10th and wound up knocking Kasey Kahne out of the way as he raced to a victory on the 11/2-mile oval two days later.

This time, there was no jumping. Stewart climbed gingerly out of the driver’s side window after slapping the wall with the right side of his No. 20 Chevrolet and sliding into the infield grass.

Stewart appeared a bit wobbly when helped to the ambulance for the mandatory ride to the infield care center. He was later taken to a nearby hospital for precautionary X-rays and a CT Scan.

J.J. Yeley, who drives a Busch series car for Joe Gibbs Racing, shook down the backup Cup car in practice and qualified it. Yeley, the last of 47 drivers to hit the track, put the car in the 13th position.

But Stewart, who will have a chance to practice in the backup on Saturday, will have to start from the back of the 43-car field if, as expected, he replaces Yeley on Sunday.

The tests were negative and Stewart was back at the track by late afternoon, resting in his motorhome.

“J.J. did a really nice job in the car and we decided to let him qualify the car and let Tony just rest and relax and be ready to do a great job on Sunday,” crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. “It isn’t the greatest situation to be in, but you’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt.”

Fortunately for Stewart, he seems to need little practice time on a track where he has finished third, second and first over the past three years.

“It’s just one of those situations when you get a car that drives good,” Stewart said Friday before the crash. “A lot of it depends on the car you bring and the package the crew chief puts on it. But we’ve just always run well here for some reason.”

The 2005 season began in frustrating fashion for Stewart, who had three runner-up finishes before finally breaking through with a win last month on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. He followed that with a dominating victory – leading 151 of 160 laps – Saturday night at Daytona. But even before he began winning races, the 2002 series champion was projecting a different image than the bad boy persona he has had over the years.

Stewart said the difference in his outlook on life, both professional and personal, stems from his move back home to Columbus, Ind., where he’s living in the house in which he grew up.

“It’s been huge for me,” said Stewart, who moved from Charlotte, N.C., where the Gibbs team is based. “That’s probably been one of the biggest factors that’s helped me to be a lot more relaxed this year.

“The neighbors on both sides and across the street and behind me are all the same neighbors that were there when I was raised. They’re older now, but they don’t treat me any different than when I was a kid. I’m still the kid who used to hit the baseball through their windows.”

The only thing upsetting Stewart these days – other than the occasional crash – is what he considers old news – questions about his previous run-ins with fans, the media and other drivers. Since his rookie year in 1999, Stewart has been fined more than $100,000 and placed on probation by NASCAR four times. But he’d rather not talk about that.

“The single biggest thing that drives me nuts with media is having to answer questions about things that happened two or three or four years ago,” Stewart said. “There’s nothing I can do about those previous years. There is nothing I can do to erase it.

“All I can do is control what happens from the moment I’m sitting in this chair forward. But I’ve had a better year this year. I haven’t annoyed everybody. I’ve tried to be a little better with the photographers and media and fans. Everybody has kind of noticed that.”

It’s true this Stewart has been a new, improved version so far in 2005. But, will it last in the crucible of racing?

“At the end of the day, I’ve got to go drive race cars and, when I go home, I don’t worry about whether I was misunderstood or not anymore,” he said. “I’ve just simplified everything. I quit worrying about stuff like that.”

Asked about his crash and recovery last year, Stewart made a statement he might later have regretted, saying, “I’d be more than happy to crash another car today if it means we’re going to win the race on Sunday.”

AP-ES-07-08-05 1828EDT

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