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DISENCHANTED STEWART SPEAKS OUT ON SAFETY DEVICES

Tony Stewart disagrees with the way NASCAR mandated head and neck restraints for the drivers, saying the sanctioning body probably was forced into making some kind of move.

"I feel like NASCAR made a mistake," said the outspoken and sometimes rash driver, who had been silent on the issue. "I think it's because of the pressure the media put on NASCAR.

"I feel like sometimes you've got to give NASCAR a break and let technology take its course instead of trying to make a great story about what controversy we can have this week."

Stewart, who will start 22nd in the 43-car field today in the Checker Auto Parts 500 (2:30 p.m.; Ch. 2; Radio 1330, 1340) at Phoenix International Raceway, was the last holdout among the drivers in using either the HANS or Hutchens device, the two approved head and neck restraint systems.

Requiring use of the head and neck restraints is the latest safety move by the sanctioning body in the wake of four drivers deaths -- including that of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt -- from head or neck injuries in the past 17 months.

The devices are intended to keep the drivers' heads from whipping forward in a collision.

NASCAR handed down its edict on Oct. 17 that one or the other must be used any time the drivers are in the cars. Stewart reacted angrily last weekend in Talladega, Ala., where he had words with NASCAR officials before racing to a second-place finish in the EA Sports 500.

Stewart has contended he has a problem with claustrophobia that makes using the devices almost impossible. He has also said he still is not convinced of their effectiveness.

Since the mandate was announced, Stewart had steadfastly refused to talk for the record. He was calm and spoke with apparent ease Saturday morning as he sat next to team owner Joe Gibbs.

"I'm unhappy with NASCAR," Stewart said. "I've been unhappy for a year now. It's frustrating to me as a race driver. Their responses are not the things I want to see from a pro organization."

Stewart insisted he is "a firm believer in head and neck restraints," but doesn't like having only the two options.

Meanwhile, there's another race to run, with Jeff Gordon, starting 14th, holding a 395-point lead over runner-up Ricky Rudd, starting 21st. Rudd not only needs to make up some ground on Gordon to keep the championship battle going. He is under attack from Stewart and Sterling Marlin, who trail the second-place driver by 74 and 77 points.

"I'm a race car driver," Stewart said. "All I want to do is go out there and see what I can do about making that car go faster and see about having the best season result I've ever had."

On Saturday, Greg Biffle came back from nearly two laps down to earn his fifth Busch Series victory of the season in the Outback Steakhouse 200.

Biffle, the top rookie in the stock car series and a former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, came up with his second win on the mile oval in two days. He also won the truck race Friday.

Document filed vs. CART

SURFERS PARADISE, Australia -- A major CART shareholder confirmed he has filed a document with the New York-based Securities and Exchange Commission recommending changes in the day-to-day operation of the auto racing series.

Jon Vannini, who owns about 1.189 million shares of CART stock, or about 7.8 percent of the company, filed a statement with the SEC after the share price for CART fell to record lows in recent weeks.

Vannini denied an Internet report and several other reports from New York that suggest he wants to force the removal of CART head Joe Heitzler.

"My filing does not call for the removal of the company's chairman and CEO," Vannini said during qualifying for today's Honda Indy 300.

CART, which will end its season next Sunday in Fontana, Calif., has had a difficult year. Races in Brazil and Fort Worth, Texas, were canceled -- the latter resulting in a lawsuit that cost the company $3.5 million -- and there is an ongoing engine crisis with Toyota, Honda and Ford all indicating they will leave the series after the 2002 season over a rules change.

Driver's finish reinstated

PARIS -- Jarno Trulli's fourth-place finish in last month's United States Grand Prix was reinstated by the governing body of auto sports.

Trulli had been disqualified in the Sept. 30 race in Indianapolis when it was ruled the skid block under the car was improper.

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