The Frontstretch: Driver No. 14: 1 4 the Record Books by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday May 10, 2012

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Driver No. 14: 1 4 the Record Books

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday May 10, 2012


It’s been a tough week to be a NASCAR fan. Last week NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton called us “needy” for wanting to see the debris that warranted a late caution flag at Richmond. After Sunday’s Arron’s 499 at Talladega, Tony Stewart delivered a bizarre , sarcastic rant that seemed to blame the fans for the carnage that occurred during the race.

I was a bit taken aback by Stewart’s comments. If they were intended to be funny, he missed by a wide margin. Over the years I’ve learned from several failed relationships that when you start sensing a little bitterness in her sense of humor even as she laughs, it’s time to pack your bags and head for the next rodeo because it’ all over but the hurting part. If he was trying to express his frustration with NASCAR and plate racing there was no need to drag the fans into it. The majority of us are in agreement with the majority of drivers in thinking plate racing is stupid and dangerous. My guess is Stewart was concerned if he really spoke his mind he’d end up getting fined for it just as his teammate Ryan Newman did for expressing his displeasure with plate racing.

In honor of Cinco de Mayo weekend, Stewart must have slipped into his alter ego of El Antonio Loco during his post race rant at Talladega, longing for Figure 8 racing, taped off front ends, and NASCAR Thunder 2003 antics at plate tracks.

NASCAR has in fact said no penalties will be leveled against Stewart for his remarks. They’re probably too glad his bizarre rant is what people are talking about this week rather than the wholesale carnage at ‘Dega.

It’s also interesting to me that a driver who finished 24th in the last vehicle listed as running after all the smoke cleared, chose to address the media at all. Throughout his career Stewart has never been shy about expressing his disdain for the press. The top 3 finishing drivers are required by NASCAR to make themselves available to the scribes in the press box after the race. Stewart has blown off that obligation numerous times simply because he wasn’t in the mood to speak. If someone asks him a question Stewart feels is stupid he’ll let them know that in no uncertain terms and he’ll refuse to answer the question. That’s his right I suppose — but it’s not very polite.

Truthfully Stewart has often at least hinted at a certain level of disdain for fans as well. He was the driver who championed the concept of closing the garage area to race fans because he didn’t want to be bothered by them. (Well, I think he actually said he was claustrophobic and didn’t like crowds. I’m not sure how anyway with claustrophobia could stand to sit in much less drive the current generation of stock cars.)

You have to look at Stewart’s remarks in the context of the season-long debate over whether stock car racing has gotten too sterile and frankly, boring.

In my mind the season is off to one of the blandest starts I can recall, but that’s not because of a lack of wrecks prior to Sunday’s wholesale carnage. What’s been lacking has been side-by-side competition with most races quickly become single file processions of cars separated by gaps of several seconds. In last week’s column I gave my guesses on what’s causing the dearth of action and my opinion is in agreement with most of the fans who write me.

The reaction of some to complaints that the races are boring is that fans are ghouls who just want to see a bunch of wrecks. There’s some higher ups in NASCAR and in the media who feel that’s the case and apparently this misconception has spread to some of the drivers as well, most notably at least this weekend in the person of our reigning Cup champion. But I’ve heard other drivers express the same sentiment albeit it a bit more tactfully but in equally bizarre terms. Carl Edwards smiled as he said that if fans wanted more wrecks he and the other drivers were going to have to do that. Really? What are we going to pre-script the races like a pro-wrestling bout? All right, Carl, on lap 25 you run into the No. 48 and take him out. Jeff, on the restart you take out Carl for what he did to your teammate and stuff him into the first turn wall. When you get out of those cars make it look like you’re having a heated argument and are about to start throwing punches even if you’re actually discussing how your 401ks are doing. Oh, and we need someone to toss a water bottle onto the track with five laps to go.

What kind of nightmare would that be?

Well actually what sort of nightmare is the following statement, a direct quote from Stewart’s bizarre rant. “Like I said, if we don’t crash half of the field by the end of the race they really need to extend it because that is what the fans want. They want to see that excitement. I feel bad that as drivers we couldn’t do a better job of crashing enough cars for them today . I feel like that is what we are here for.”

Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

It’s especially troubling to me that Stewart would make such a comment after Friday’s ARCA race and Sunday’s Nationwide race both featured savage wrecks that left fans hanging and praying wondering if they’d just seen a driver killed. There is simply no sound at a race track worse than a med-evac helicopter firing to life. There’s few sights at a race track worse than the Jaws of Life being taken out of the back of the truck. All you can do at that point is pray, hope and wait. I know that’s what I was doing Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. Yet somehow Stewart seems to have an impression I’d be standing up and cheering hoping for the worst possible outcome. If that’s the case why is attendance at Talladega, a track known for and promoted as featuring savage wrecks drawing around 50,000 less fans per event than it was a decade ago?

Did the SAFER barriers installed to reduce the likelihood of serious injury or worse send all those ghoulish fans packing?

It’s funny, but for the last ten races of last season I don’t recall a lot of fans complaining about how boring the races were. That was due in large part to Stewart himself. After a disappointing regular season, Stewart caught fire in the Chase, getting up on the wheel and running every lap he drove as hard as he possibly could. When adversity knocked him back in the running order, he’d come storming back through the field like a maniac. Once he was in the lead, he wasn’t going to give it up to anyone, and if they tried to take it from him, he wasn’t above swapping a little paint to point out their lapse in manners. If a bunch of drivers would adopt a similar strategy for all 36 races, not just the last ten, the problem of “boring” racing would be solved completely but it’s unlikely we’d ever see that style of racing during the regular season with the current Chase points format.

It’s disheartening to how out of touch NASCAR officials and now even some drivers are with what the fans really want. That dichotomy is probably what lays at the base of most of the problems that plague our sport. But on behalf of myself and a lot of fans like me to anyone who thinks we’re ghouls eagerly anticipating the next big wreck, don’t worry about what we want. We were just fixing to leave anyway.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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05/10/2012 08:35 AM

Matt. This long time, “stupid” fan has just about had enough. Like a lot of “stupid” fans I just want to see good hard racing, not the Macy’s day parade at a race track I stated in a response yesterday that the nas$car whiny millionaire drivers’ are so disconnected from the fans that it’s become pathetic. Stewart affirmed that Sunday. And nas$car. Get your heads out of your rear ends. Sponsors might be paying the bills to a certain extent, but the fans pay them by buying their products. Regardless of how it’s put into context, the fans pay their arses. I guess it’s to much to ask for good racing.

05/10/2012 09:07 AM

Ex fans should stay away from the tracks, keep the tv off and don’t buy from sponsors of nASCAR.

05/10/2012 09:10 AM

I’m looking forward to a good race at Darlington.
I found Tony’s strange rant entertaining not ghoulish. But its old news.

05/10/2012 09:18 AM

I think we may be reading a little too much into this one. I feel like Stewart was taking a shot at NASCAR, not the fans. And let’s be honest: there is a small minority of fans that just watch for the wrecks. And I think NASCAR tries to cater to them more than the race fan, because they take the true race fan for granted. That’s the whole premise behind “have at it” and the new plate rules. They’re trying to re court that casual fan the just likes the wrecks. I think that’s what Stewart was saying. I don’t think he was addressing you, me, or any readers of Frontstretch. I think he was addressing the guy who sees a crash on Sportscenter, watches the next race, sees no wrecks and never watches a race again.

Carl D.
05/10/2012 09:39 AM

I can remember a time not too long ago when Stewart was the driver you could always count on to call it like it sees it, and to hell with whether Nascar liked it or not. He seemed poised to become the next Dale Sr. in that respect; the guy who, due to his place in the sport, could get away with publicly voicing what the other drivers were saying privately. Now he just seems petty and bitter most of the time. Personally, I lost a lot of respect for Stewart when he chastised the fans for complaining about the state of the sport a couple of years ago. His recent comments seem to support that assessment. However, I will admit that Stewart is sometimes hard to read.

05/10/2012 11:19 AM

Sounded like Tony listened to the radio last week and bit on the topics that the hosts wanted to be storylines for the race. There is a disturbing trend to force highlights on to the top ten on Mickey’s sport channel to “get the sport in front of the fans of other games on a daily basis, hoping they care enough to watch. BTW, I wonder who told DW to call it a race and not a show as he had in the past?

Shayne Flaherty
05/10/2012 11:40 AM

Tony made a mockery of the mainstream media. He stood in front of the sheep and they gobbled up everything Tony said. Never once did anyone from the media call Tony out on his statements. The lamestream media took Tony’s comments as fact. LOL.

Tony Stewart made the lamestream media look like mindless robots.

05/10/2012 12:31 PM

Full disclosure here…I’m a Stewart fan. That said, Matt mentioned this: “There’s some higher ups in NASCAR and in the media who feel that’s the case”

Like Country said above, I thought THAT sentiment was what Tony was going after…NASCAR’s perceptions of the fan wanting wrecks and trying to deliver them…not the actual fans themselves.

05/10/2012 12:51 PM

I’m sorry. But when I go to a race, the person sitting next to me in the stands is usually some drunk redneck eagerly waiting for some big crash to happen.
Stewart said what he said because….<gasp> it’s true. Most of the average NASCAR fans I have run into aren’t racing fans, they are a fan of a driver, and watch and wait for wrecks and drivers running into each other. To deny that there is not a significant portion of people who watch NASCAR hoping for wrecks is foolish.

05/10/2012 12:58 PM

i thought stewarts comments were tongue in cheek funny and not really aimed at anyone. he’s opened his mouth and let words spill out in frustration before and let’s face it, he’s a great driver but a well known hothead when the right buttons are pushed. Having said that, the topic of discussion that he fueled (intentionally or not) is great for racing. Matt’s article here (to me) is exactly the right conclusion to that discussion. i hear more and more people correcting nascar and the buffoons who say the fan who cries “BORING” wants more wrecks with cries of “it’s the hard racing that’s missing, stoopid.”

and the macy’s day parade comment above… priceless.

05/10/2012 01:04 PM

Lugnut…you might want to consider upgrading your seats. Yes there are “fans” like you describe but from my dealings with race fans and being a fan myself, they are in minority.

Don Mei
05/10/2012 01:39 PM

I thought Stewart was perfectly lucid in what he was saying. He was simply expressing, in a very controlled, simmering way that the idiots who run Nascar wont admit that they do it but they devise rules to create pack racing because they think its exciting and will appeal to that subset of fans, who unfortunately do see things as Lugnut said above. Nascar doesnt care about those of us who cringe when a driver is involved in a serious wreck, they want the people who crane their necks to see more. They live vicariously that way. What was it Thoreau said about the “mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation”?

05/10/2012 02:07 PM

It takes a certain level of intellect to get or give sarcasm effectively, and no matter what, some just won’t get it.

Having said that, in no way am I questioning anyone’s intellect as I myself am far from equipped to judge ANYONE else’s!!!

There’s a billion different fixes for the plate racing mess, and while my favorite is to drop the banking & turn em loose…then there’s what I recall old Ironhead saying, something along the lines of…“build the fences up higher & take the plates off, the drivers that can stand it..will, the one’s that can’t..won’t”.

But at least with the tandem racing you didn’t wipe out 20 cars in a pig pile because someone had to correct the car by a tenth of a turn on the steering wheel while in the middle…like pack racing does.

So, is it possible that Tony’s comments were aimed at NASCAR for adjusting things to discourage tandem racing in favor of the pack & claiming that “pack” racing is what the fans want?

I just didn’t take it that Smoke was jabbing the fans at all, but turning NASCAR’s own words back on them…that’s what I thought anyhow…and frankly I laughed my ass off when I first read the transcript!!

Like him or not, Ole Smoke’s about as good of a shoe as there is & he’s got the time/wins/championships now to command a little attention when he talks….while less direct & more sarcastic, he’s sorta stepping in where Senior & even Russell Wallace have been in the past…seems like they’ve earned the right to speak their mind about things as long as they don’t get too out of hand.

Of course, as is always the case, if my driver runs top 5…I got no problem with pack racing, right?

Good article Matt, read you twice a week since 98-99.

05/10/2012 03:29 PM

LuvASmrtAz29, to paraphrase an old baseball adage about how to hit a knuckle-ball… “There are a billion different fixes for plate racing, but none of them work.”

05/10/2012 03:32 PM

You know Matt..Stewart has made racing much more exciting since the Chase last year..he’s driven his butt off! Maybe that’s wherein lies his rub…he’s been driving like a man possessed and it’s STILL not enough for the fans, media, and NASCAR! I ONLY included the “fans” for the heck of it..I, like many others truly believe Stewarts rant was directed to the media..and foremost to NASCAR. I think the fans “get it”… But the two groups who needed to “get it” the most…didn’t ! The media needs to quit saying Stewart mocked the fans and look in the mirror…and NASCAR needs to smarten up and quit throwing bandages on a severed limb!

05/10/2012 03:42 PM

Don Mei-Excellent.

Doug in Washington (State)
05/10/2012 03:47 PM

While I agree with Tony’s sentiment (the sarcasm, not that idea of running Figure-8s) I can just see Robin Pemberton saying “Well, if you don’t like it you’re welcome to skip the plate tracks”. Of course, a majority of drivers WON’T do that. Too much at stake points-wise, sponsor-wise, etc. Plus for some drivers it’s their only 4 chances a year to run up front, even if it does mean you have a much higher chance of having a very expensive weekend or worse.

I now believe that Talladega cannot be fixed. Not and satisfy the majority. The rednecks that hold that infield orgy there want to see carnage, as long as Junior isn’t the one taken out. The drivers want to be able to drive, without these ridiculous rules packages that are making sure we get one or 2 “big ones”. Reconfiguring the track will cause a Bristol-like defection, no matter what you do. Lower the banking, and the track becomes a 2.66 mile version of Matt’s FAVORITE track, Fontana (that’s sarcasm, btw). Take off the plates it becomes a graveyard when the fences DON’T hold. Any other attempt at lowering horsepower will result in either pack or tandem racing. As long as drivers do not have to back off in the turns, drafting will always be the faster way around the track. So either you need to have the cars running on ice skates for tires or you need to make them so aerodynamically inefficient that you ELIMINATE Aero downforce. But guess what? Doing anything to eliminate packs/tandems simply causes strung out parades. That’s a product of too-equal cars with a points system geared for consistency over winning.

05/10/2012 07:29 PM

evidently you all forgot what
earnhart said about plate racing. “mr. france must be rolling over in his grave if you call this racing”

05/10/2012 07:42 PM

There’s an easy way to fix plate racing. Use a plate with the same size hole as the intake manifold, which should be the same size as the throttle body.

Matt L
05/10/2012 11:51 PM

It honestly makes you wonder who is directing the sport right now. Drivers, journalists, and fans all seem to be frustrated and blaming each other for the problems in the sport.

I just realized now, Brian France has really been MIA this season.

Fred W
05/12/2012 07:45 AM

Smoke remarks were just fine in my book. Plate racing sucks, period, and there isn’t a rule package out there that works. Change the track. We could knock down half the banking, and have much better racing. There just has to be a way to not put drivers and fans in danger and have good racing. If NASCAR didn’t own these tracks, they’d have been changed a long time ago. GO SMOKE, keep on talking until someone listens.