Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday April 22, 2007
This weekend, my Phoenix garage area became the most well-kept, air-conditioned secret I could find in America: the couch in front of the TV set. After a hard-working beginning to one of the longest seasons in sports, I took advantage of the opportunity most NASCAR drivers and crew members never get a chance to have: a week away from the race track. While both comfy and relaxing, my East Coast location did leave me in a bind for Monday: getting a comment from Tony Stewart on his season to date was going to be a bit of an issue when he was 3,000 miles away.
Luckily, it was just as big a problem for everyone else.
Frustrated second was the first loser for a car that led 132 laps on the evening, Stewart skipped out on his post-race media session Saturday night. Ignoring the obligation at hand, he simply changed clothes and bolted to the airport without so much as a wave to the crowd of reporters he stood up. Chances are Jeff Gordon wasn't high on Stewart's list of people to wave at, either, at least with all five fingers. After losing the lead to Gordon under the race’s final caution, some roughhouse maneuvers by the No. 24 erased the might of Stewart's bonzai attempt at victory. Pushing through the middle of a three-wide sandwich with fifteen laps left, Stewart had initially used traffic and skill to slice his way back to the front, only for Gordon to respond with one slight bump into Stewart’s back bumper that inevitably gave him the win. Clearly, having one of the most daring passes of his career ruined with a simple nudge left the man they call Smoke with a fiery temper he needed to water down in solitude.
That the media got the shaft as a result of Tony's latest escapades isn't a big surprise: he's had a tenuous relationship with us for several years now, despite the fact that this latest misstep will likely earn him both a fine and a not-so-nice lecture from the NASCAR powers that be. What comes as no surprise, though, is the anger which Stewart used to steamroll his way out of the Phoenix facility as fast as he could go.
Looking over his season, Stewart's got every right to be pissed off, and if you put yourself in his shoes, you would be, too. Of course, Stewart wasn’t always pulling his hair out; after a late-season surge in 2006 that made them the preseason favorite to win this year's title, Stewart and the No. 20 team appeared ready to make those predictions come true with a win in the preseason Bud Shootout. A year full of promise then began at the Daytona 500; with the best car in the biggest race, the No. 20 Chevrolet had Victory Lane begging for mercy until an untimely wreck with Kurt Busch jolted him straight from first to last. A composed Stewart received kudos after the race for the way in which he was gracious in defeat; unwilling to go after Busch in the quote department, the more mature Smoke of recent years was quick to chalk it up to a racing incident. But over the following weeks and months, that patience has been sorely tested with a series of additional "racing incidents" that have tested the No. 20 team's resolve.
In March, Stewart led 121 laps at Atlanta and was in front of the field in the race's final stages; of course, that was until Jimmie Johnson passed him with just three laps left in the race. Smoke was forced to settle for second, his second near-miss in what would begin to be a running pattern of "oh-so-close." At Bristol the very next week, Stewart laid waste to the field in the Car of Tomorrow's debut, leading 257 of the first 288 laps en route to what looked to be a dominating victory. Running full-tilt, Stewart's win seemed assured; that is, until a faulty fuel pump left him running on empty, disappointed in the garage with a level of patience that was clearly wearing itself thin.
Just last week at Texas, that razor-thin rope holding Tony's temper at bay finally snapped. After having a car in practice that looked like the class of the field, the car was out to lunch in the race, never a contender for the win. Juan Pablo Montoya finally did Stewart a favor by washing up into his car while battling for a Top 10 spot; Stewart spun out, fell off the lead lap, then spun again en route to finishing 25th. The Phoenix debacle, where Stewart looked to have the win in hand until a late caution led to Gordon getting better track position, proved to be the last straw in what's been a frustrating year.
Of course, frustration leads to statements you later want to take back, and surely Stewart will be laughing down the road about retirement comments he made this week, suggesting his NASCAR career was over as soon as he could finish out a contract that runs through 2009. Really, what was speaking there wasn't Stewart but his on-track alter ego; you know, the one that desires to win at all costs, but instead has seen Victory Lane shut him out, not once, not twice, but four times in eight races. When you come that close that many times, no type of racing's going to be fun; not NASCAR, not Indy Car, not dirt trackin' it in Eldora.
So, why does this ultimate frustration have me more convinced than ever Stewart's about to make the two Jeffs above him in the standings start to shiver? Clearly, Stewart isn't known on the circuit for his fast starts. In nine seasons on tour, just two of his twenty-nine race wins have come within the first eight races of the season - a stat balanced out by the twenty seven trips to Victory Lane that have occurred after May 1st. Just the fact the No. 20 car's been capable of having this strong a start is impressive in and of itself; usually, Stewart spends the first quarter of each season figuring out just exactly what the team needs to fix to be scorching hot for the second half.
Well, the mythical month of May is just nine days away, and the upcoming tracks on the schedule seem to favor no one more than Stewart. Most importantly, though, Stewart responds best to off-track controversy by taking out his frustrations on the rest of the field. Punch a reporter at Indy in 2002? Stewart was in Victory Lane the very next week. Swear at race winner Ryan Newman in Victory Lane in '03 after not being allowed back on the lead lap at Dover? Stewart had his own victory party the next race at Pocono. Stewart tries to fight Brian Vickers in '04? A 25-point loss and extended probation was quickly balanced out by a visit to Chicagoland's Victory Lane two weeks later.
I could go on and on, but the message is sent; past history shows Stewart is not a man you don’t want to make mad if you want to have a chance of finishing in front of him. Once the competitive fire is lit, there's no turning back; and recent comments (or lack thereof) clearly indicate that fire is burning. So, while both Gordon and Burton bask in the spotlight, beware; despite sitting seventh in the current Nextel Cup standings, the driver that lurks as the biggest threat to their championship appears to be more motivated than he’s ever been before.
His exit, stage right, made that perfectly clear.
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