The Frontstretch: Tony Stewart: Rising Above a Checkered Past into this Fan's Heart by S.D. Grady -- Tuesday June 9, 2009

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It’s always interesting to watch several races in a weekend. Different cars, storylines and personalities combine to snag my attention for hours on end. Perhaps the greatest display of diverse action appeared in two separate Victory Lanes this weekend.

After Saturday’s Nationwide race, the stands at Nashville nearly fell down with the echoes of boos pouring down on Kyle Busch’s victorious head. First, he burned up his tires, quite literally! And then came the expected climbing out of his car on the frontstretch, the bow to the angry mob held back by the catch fence and the snaring of the checkered flag tossed from the flagstand. Nothing truly notable there, since the Shrub is currently riding a high in fan hatred. However, I don’t think anybody expected the smashing of the Gibson guitar into itty bitty bits. When the bits weren’t small enough, Kyle swung the trophy again into the cement.

After the past week, all I could say was, “wow.” The moment didn’t actually stir my anger — I seem to be past that. The rock star wannabe just met expectations.

Fast forward to Sunday. This time, I bit my nails watching Tony Stewart float through the final corners of the race. Was there enough gas? Yes? No? I really wanted Tony to win…

Mr. Stewart won, bringing his No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet to Victory Lane for his first points win as a car owner-driver! He managed a rather snazzy burnout down the majority of the frontstretch — and at Pocono, that’s a WOW! Next, he simply pulled to Victory Lane. He hugged his Dad. He hugged his crew. He climbed from his car. There was the expected spraying of sports drinks and general feeling of bonhomie. Oh, and did I mention the thunderous cheers erupting from the stands? NASCAR Nation loved this.

The drastically different celebrations between Kyle Busch on Saturday and Tony Stewart on Sunday displayed the increasing maturity of one driver, and the lack of maturity in the other.

Wasn’t that nice? And what is so notable about Tony Stewart simply being nice? Does anybody remember a time when Tony resembled M&M boy in temperament?

I do.

There’s nothing like driving with a chip on your shoulder the size of Texas to make a NASCAR fan sit up and take notice. With his arrival in the Cup series in 1999, Stewart was infamous for mouthing off to the media, pushing security members, punching emergency crews, trash talking about his fellow competitors and taking the powers that be to task for the smallest issues. In short, he excelled at being an ass.

During driver intros in his early years, Tony’s fans (the good and the bad) made just as much noise as the Jeff Gordon fans. The boos fought with the cheers. He rode around the track in the back of the pick-up trucks with a shit-eating grin, just begging for somebody to say something rude. And he won. And he won some more.

Then he grew up. There’s really no other explanation for it. The headlines stopped being about what he said or did, instead they just covered his ability to win. Maybe the anger management classes helped, or perhaps it was some savvy PR moves on behalf of Home Depot. But my heart softened towards the Hoosier at about the same time he started “fixing up his house” in TV ads and climbing fences in Indy.

Oh, Tony will still walk away from the reporters after a really bad day. He still has the ability to speak before self-censoring, and as proven on Sunday, he can still win.

Would I be as happy for Stewart this week without his checkered past? I doubt it. There are other “golden boys” in this sport who excel with nice haircuts, always pressed polos and pleasant talks with the media. They provide vanilla comments and generally unexciting drama from the cockpit of their cars. Even if they have my devotion, they fail to raise my pulse rate.

On the other hand, Tony’s past performances, on and off the track, provide a dramatic backdrop for his current success. From the ashes of youthful ignorance, rises a champion worthy of the NASCAR history books.

As I think back on the weekend, I am left wondering if one other candy-colored driver is capable of earning such accolades in the future. Wouldn’t it be something if he did?

Forever the optimist, I hope so. Until then, I’ll be cheering for the No. 14 and sending the silent treatment toward the No. 18.

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Bill B
06/09/2009 12:49 PM

The real test will come when Tony starts having bad luck. I am liking the new Tony a lot. He seems to have grown up into an adult. My only hesitancy is that he has not really had any adversity this year (yet). That will be the true litmus test.

Bob M
06/09/2009 03:17 PM

I don’t think Tony will ever fully grow up to be an adult, and hell I don’t want him to. I’m 50 and still waiting to grow up. Tony is just fine the way he is, that’s why I am proud to say he’s my favorite driver. No vanilla with Tony. By the way, does any one think A.J. Foyt has grown up yet? Tells it like it is.

06/09/2009 04:51 PM

Tony Stewart is a racer . Not a driver . Not a Nascar star . He is a racer . Racing is what he cares about .
He is not interested in fame , probably not really interested in fortune other than what comes along with his racing .
Only driver in history to sit on the front row of the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 . Only driver in history to win Rookie of the year in both Indy Car racing and NASCAR Cup .
Only driver in history to win both the Indy Car Chamionship and the NASCAR Cup Championship .
Only driver in the very long history of USAC to win all three open wheel titles in the same year ( since Tony did it , now several others have , including J J Yeley who won the triple driving Tony Stewarts cars .
Won the IROC Championship .
Won The ARCA race on the one mile dirt track at Springfield Il. Has won numerous tiles and championships as a car owner in sprints , midgets , and dirt champ cars , both USAC and WOO .
Now winning in his own NASCAR Cup car and leading in points while his other car is currently 4th in points .
Total all of that together , along with his many wins in dirt late models , modifieds , and virtually every other form of racing hes ever tried , and you have what a racer is all about . A racer , not a driver .

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