When’s the last time an entire crowd cheered Tony Stewart?
Love him or hate him, it’s a valid question. Stewart’s career has been dogged by moments of anger and frustration that have left fans ready to boo him the second they hear his name mentioned on the track. But there Stewart was on Sunday, driving a backwards victory lap at Indy; living his childhood dream and listening to every fan in the stands cheer his name.
The answer to that question, of course, is symptomatic of a yearlong turnaround that has seen Stewart go straight from jerk to genius, from hated aggressor to kind & lovable superstar. And in what has to be a defining moment of Tony’s career, nothing must have been sweeter than to see himself embraced by the one part of the NASCAR world that for years has wanted nothing more than to roast him over an open fire.
The noticeable change of opinion with the fans is probably funniest to those who know Tony very well, because in one sense Stewart’s never really changed at all. One look at Tony’s charitable donations off the track and the giant heaps of time he spends to help the needy and less fortunate speaks volumes about his kind & gentle personality away from the race track. What Tony reveals to the public in terms of his charitable work is probably half as much as what actually goes on, as Stewart constantly works to keep that part of his life private. By all accounts, Stewart has been labeled nothing but a quality person away from the bright light of NASCAR. Just ask anyone who’s a part of Victory Junction Gang Camp.
But it’s when the pressure of NASCAR’s top series and where the bright lights of the racetrack have shined on Stewart that he’s lost control, and occasionally struggled to come to terms with his emotions that come with the ups and downs of racing. And it’s been at some of NASCAR’s biggest races where Stewart has pulled his worst public relations maneuvers. It was at Daytona in 2001 where Tony suffered a $10,000 fine for knocking Mike Mulhern’s tape recorder out of his hand in a fit of rage after a penalty. And more people remember Stewart punching a photographer in 2002 in Indianapolis then remember who won the Brickyard 400 that year (Bill Elliott, for you inquiring minds).
Of course, those two situations pale in comparison to the long line of on-track incidents Stewart has had through the years, from throwing things inside Kenny Irwin’s window back in 1999 at Martinsville to spinning out Kasey Kahne in Chicagoland in July 2004. Stewart has an aggressive driving style, a Dale Earnhardt-like demeanor on the track that can rub many fans and competitors the wrong way from the green to the checkered.
But this year, something’s been different. All of a sudden, Stewart isn’t going around stomping mad after luck on the track doesn’t go his way. At Martinsville, after a loose wheel dropped him out of contention for the win, he got out of the race car and motivated his crew rather than screamed at them. And when Stewart’s got a rough-handling car on the racetrack, which happened several times early on in 2005, he actually settles in and tries to make it better, rather than becoming overaggressive and getting himself into wrecks or other on-track problems.
Many reasons have been attributed to Stewart’s change of heart. One is a return to his roots; Stewart has returned to live in his hometown, in the same 3-bedroom home he grew up in through the years. He also has matured agewise; Stewart is pushing 35, and in the modern era of NASCAR, he knows that he may be well into the second half of his career. But in one sense, when someone improves their personality, does it really matter what the reasons are? It doesn’t appear that his crew members are sitting around asking why, but instead are enjoying the new Tony, free of the controversy and pain that he’s inadvertently caused them at least once a year since his Cup career began.
It’s that type of change that had Stewart finally poised to win one of NASCAR’s “major” races, the only thing missing off Stewart’s resume that already includes the 2002 Nextel Cup championship. And suddenly, after a sluggish start the wins started coming. For the first time, Stewart tasted victory at Daytona, winning the Pepsi 400 and starting a signature routine of climbing the fence after the win, to the delight of the fans in attendance. Suddenly, those who couldn’t stand him are getting in touch with his easygoing nature, his realism, and his sense of humor. “I’m too fat to be climbing fences,” he claimed after his win at New Hampshire, claiming he needed to hire a personal trainer to try and get in shape. Thousands of out-of-shape fans themselves can relate to that.
And so we move on to Sunday. It’s the type of race the old Tony Stewart was destined to lose. Stewart had the best car, but struggled with track position early, getting caught in a constant stream of traffic on his way to the front. In the past, one of those cars in his way would end up in the wall; but a patient, reserved Stewart kept the fenders in place and his head in the race. He didn’t lead until lap 100, but when he did get to the front it seemed he was in position to run away with the trophy. That is, until the 9 car of Kasey Kahne found a little extra speed, and the two engaged in an amazing battle over the final 150 miles that found Kahne pull back in front for several laps. No worry; the cool, calm, and collected Stewart simply drove back around on the race’s final restart, and held on to accomplish his childhood dream.
As Tony went to kiss the bricks after the race, you couldn’t help but feel the outline of a ghost slowly float away into the Indiana clouds. Tony the Terrible had disappeared after a year of abuse and neglect; only time will tell if he’ll ever return. Don’t bet on it.
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