The Frontstretch: The End of a Classic NASCAR Era by Kurt Smith -- Friday July 11, 2008

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The End of a Classic NASCAR Era

Kurt Smith · Friday July 11, 2008

 

It all seems like it just flew by at this point, but 10 years is a long time. More specifically, 338 races—356 by season’s end—is a lot of races.

We’ve gotten used to seeing the orange No. 20 car slicing its way through the field, its fiery and extraordinarily skilled pilot guiding it rapidly to the front, going three-wide, occasionally pushing someone out of the way if need be. Now people who both love or despise but sorta respect Tony Stewart suddenly have half a season to get used to a great NASCAR era being over.

Joey Logano, the likely replacement for Stewart in the Gibbs No. 20, will do just fine. The kid is enormously talented and looks like he has a great career ahead of him…and he looks to be a driver who will have plenty of fans in a hurry, something NASCAR could definitely use. It’s just that…someone else driving the Home Depot No. 20 car? After 10 years of classic races, memorable incidents, and seeing a once-shaky relationship between driver and sponsor grow into one of the most solid in the sport? It doesn’t seem right.

During baseball’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn last year, much was made of both players’ remaining with the same team throughout their career, despite the fact that both could have pulled down bigger contracts elsewhere. In the age of free agency that makes such loyal athletes increasingly and infuriatingly rare (especially galling is the constant claim of “it’s not about the money” every mercenary free agent athlete makes, before inevitably accepting the biggest offer), Ripken and Gwynn stood out as players to whom a team’s fans could safely grow an emotional attachment…and save money on gear.

This isn’t to say that Stewart is taking the free agent route to bigger bucks…far from it. Just that everyone who has followed NASCAR in recent years has grown accustomed to an enigmatic guy and one of the best behind the wheel toiling for the same team and sponsor for 10 years, with the same number and same colors on the car. And now, the historic era is almost over, soon to be relegated to the glorious wonderment of days past. The ongoing story of Big Orange in the 20 will soon become NASCAR reminiscence, increasingly fonder with the passage of time.

Tony Stewart has been behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Home Depot car his entire Cup career. His departure at the end of the season will bring an end to a classic era.

Tony Stewart’s departure from Joe Gibbs Racing brings to mind, especially for his fans, some of the more memorable moments of Smoke’s Cup career, until now spent entirely driving an orange car for a home improvement warehouse, as well as for an unfailingly patient and enormously respected team owner.

There are the Cups of course. The first came in 2002, in a season that couldn’t have started more ominously with a blown engine just two laps into the Daytona 500. A win at Watkins Glen followed by a flourish of Top 5 finishes, holding off the late charge from the veteran driver he probably most admires, Mark Martin.

The second came in 2005, another season with a fairly common shaky start turning into a dominant second half. Stewart went into the Chase as the points leader and never left it in much doubt, with three second place finishes more or less wrapping it up by Homestead. The only half-serious challenge came from Jimmie Johnson, whose team’s attempt at head games towards the end of the Chase was practically laughed off by the No. 20 team.

There were the classic wins—two at the Brickyard, in his home state of Indiana, where he climbed the fence for a noisily appreciative crowd. Three wins in a six race stretch in 2006 after falling just short of the Chase. Holding off Jeff Gordon after Gordon spun his tires in kitty litter at Martinsville. Six road course wins, one after nearly making an early exit because of severe stomach cramps. Back-to-back wins in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona.

Oh, and speaking of Daytona…how unkind the 500 could be to the man at times. The aforementioned blown engine on the second lap in 2002. The horrific end-over-end crash in 2001, in the race where Dale Earnhardt perished. A dominating performance in 2005 only to see arch rival Jeff Gordon take the lead in the waning laps and capture the checkered flag. The best car in 2007 for the first half of the race, taken to the garage after an incident with Kurt Busch that wrecked both cars. Having the checkered flag in his sights yet again this year only to have Busch push teammate Ryan Newman ahead of him for the win. A Daytona 500 win will now likely have forever eluded Tony Stewart and the Home Depot No. 20 team.

And with the wins and several Daytona 500 near misses came a higher than average amount of incidents that upset both NASCAR and the Home Depot. Tony Stewart may be the only driver in the history of motorsports to win two series championships while on probation.

A Watkins Glen tangle with Jeff Gordon followed with an obscenity-laden tirade. Spinning Gordon on pit road at Bristol. Pushing Matt Kenseth off the track at Daytona. Taking out Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards at Pocono. Numerous comments about young drivers not understanding give and take early in races. Last but of course never least, the unforgettable comparison of NASCAR to the WWE. Stewart may not love all of us reporters, but he sure does his part to make our jobs easier. There aren’t ever any reported cases of writer’s block after Big Orange speaks his mind.

Smoke also hasn’t suffered journalistic fools gladly…giving one a shove at Indianapolis, kicking the tape recorder out of the hand of another at Daytona. Recently he told off a reporter who was egging him on about whether his friend Kevin Harvick had it in for him after a wreck at Sonoma.

And who can forget the Goodyear rants? A diatribe blasting the sport’s official tire supplier just won’t be the same coming from someone in an Old Spice fire suit.

Triumph and heartache and no lack of excitement off the track either. All in ten years of one driver, in one car, for one team.

We’re gonna miss it.

By the way, this is by no means a criticism of Tony Stewart’s decision. He wants a new challenge and believes he can take a struggling team and turn it around. With Haas that is indeed going to be a daunting task, and I’ll never begrudge anyone who takes on something that will require an abundance of patience, devotion and leadership. It’s certain his soon to be former team wishes him nothing but the best. It’s equally certain that his fans will forgive him for having to buy new T-shirts, caps, jackets, die-cast cars, flags, mugs, shot glasses, mouse pads, posters, sweat pants, headbands, bedroom paint…

NASCAR drivers don’t often stay with the same team for their entire careers. Dale Earnhardt drove for three teams. Darrell Waltrip left a team with which he had won three championships to take on a similar challenge as Stewart is, with a then-upstart team called Hendrick Motorsports. Driver seat changes have become more common these days…with sponsorship becoming more expensive, teams need marketable drivers, and the better drivers of course are going to look for equipment and sometimes a paycheck that matches their talent.

Let’s hope the contracts hold out and Jeff Gordon is forever associated with and only with DuPont, Rick Hendrick, and the No. 24. And that the other major home improvement warehouse can stay on the No. 48 while its two-time champion driver stays in it. And that Matt Kenseth climbs out of the Roush Fenway DeWalt No. 17 in his last NASCAR race.

In a perfect world, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would drive the DEI Budweiser No. 8 for the rest of his life. Both Kurt Busch and Roush Racing would have been better off today had they worked out their differences and kept Busch in the Sharpie/Rubbermaid No. 97. Here’s to the idea of Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs, M&M’s and the No. 18 staying together for a long, long time. But I’m not expecting it.

As The Official Columnist of NASCAR, I can’t help but lament the impending exodus of the long-enduring institution that was Tony Stewart in the Joe Gibbs Racing Home Depot No. 20. We’ll never know how many more classic moments there might have been, just as we’ll never know how much more great music the Beatles could have made.

Tony won’t be the same without the orange, and the orange won’t be the same without Tony.

Kurt’s Shorts – My Kind of Band, Chicago Is

  • Juan Pablo Montoya took a big risk singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” at Wrigley Field, after the reception Jeff Gordon received…of course, I doubt Montoya would have called it “Wrigley Stadium”. Jeff will never live that one down.
  • With the 150-point penalty, Martin Truex, Jr. scored minus-38 points last week at Daytona. Which officially makes the penalty too severe. In the future, NASCAR can just tell these guys to stay home. The No. 1 didn’t deserve to lose points from other races for what they did at Daytona.
  • I wonder how many empty seats there will be this weekend. Chicago isn’t the best racing demographic, but they only race here once. Maybe some people will turn up.
  • Tony Stewart and his buddy Kevin Harvick have more wins at Chicagoland (four, two each) than everyone else on the circuit combined. Now if Tony can just get his buddy to stop wrecking him, they have a good chance to add to the total.

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Kevin in SoCal
07/11/2008 01:07 PM
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With the Chicago area people telling us that in order to get Cup tickets, you have to buy tickets to every other event at the track, I expect there to be lots of empty seats as well.

Larry Burton
07/11/2008 01:32 PM
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Kevin, I agree with you. Telling folks they have to buy a weekends worth of tickets when they only want to watch the main event is rather stupid. With the economy like it is and gas prices and Nascar giving Toyotas advantages over the other cars, who would want to watch the races dominating by a Japanese car all weekend.

Mike In NH
07/11/2008 02:36 PM
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Given Home Depot’s financial issues, and Tony’s departure, I wouldn’t worry about someone else driving the orange – they may not be sponsoring anyone next year.

You’re the Official Columnist of NASCAR? Wow, it’s good to see you have a sense of humor, Kurt! :)

steve in NJ
07/11/2008 05:51 PM
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Given the housing down turn I agree with Mike in NH that Home Depot might no be sponsoring a car next year. The article from “the Official Columnist of NASCAR” is a short, but well written, tribute to a great NASCAR driver

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