The Frontstretch: Vexing Vito: Tony Stewart's Defining Moment vs. Denny Hamlin's Missed Opportunity by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday August 8, 2013

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So everybody is jumping all over Tony Stewart’s soda cookie-swilling backside over his unfortunate and untimely injury at Iowa while driving his sprint car Monday night. Funny, I don’t remember people leveling the same skepticism towards Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress tumbling down a mountain, or Harry Gant working on a roof all summer long.

Not that there’s an opportune time for snapping a twig, but considering his precarious points position (11th, five points removed from the all-important 10th position despite a win), the momentum being gained in recent weeks by SHR, and the meat of the summer stretch when Stewart typically saves the day, the No. 14 team and the company will surely be tested by these chain of events. However more importantly, is how Stewart will respond.

Tony Stewart has endured a rash of head-shaking at his injuries suffered while partaking in his extracurricular activities this week in Iowa. While his season is shelved, might this prove to be a turning point for Stewart-Haas Racing as a company?

No, I don’t mean with a surly, sardonic, pointed response, impugning anybody who dares ask the obvious: is it really the best idea to strap into the equivalent of a garden tractor with a Cup engine, and get flung through the air and out of the arena on your day off? Rather, how Stewart now responds as the leader of an organization which has already endured speculation and criticism this year around the tenure of crew chief Steve Addington, the uncertainty of Ryan Newman’s, Kevin Harvick’s impending arrival, and the constant stream of conscious criticism over their raven-haired rookie from Roscoe, IL. Everyone likes to flippantly say that SHR is simply a satellite team of Hendrick Motorsports, and that Stewart is an owner in name only.

Nonsense.

Tony is taking this as hard as any owner or driver ever could. He feels a personal level of commitment to his sponsors, drivers, crew members, and fans to be in the No. 14, and his pastime pursuits have prevented this at a very critical juncture for the team. Now this isn’t the first time an owner or a driver has had an accident that sidelined them. Jack Roush’s pair of aerial mishaps have had him perilously close to the pearly gates a couple of times. Remember Denny Hamlin’s injury from grab-assing around the haulers that saw him carve his hand up, and wear a mitten for a month – to say nothing of blowing up his knee in a pick-up basketball game in 2010.

Before everybody writes off Stewart, how did each of these respond? After nearly buying the farm in an Alabama swamp and being saved by an angel disguised as a Marine underwater rescue diver named Larry J. Hicks (atheists and agnostics feel free to chime in), the Roush organization nearly pulled off the 2002 Winston Cup with Mark Martin losing out narrowly to – ironically – Tony Stewart, with Roush Racing coming back the next season, winning the final ever Winston Cup, under what many consider the most legitimate of points systems with Matt Kenseth.

Denny Hamlin? Got his knee cut on just as the season starts, hobbles back in his rig, wins eight races, and if not for a botched fuel mileage call in the penultimate event at Phoenix, wins the 2010 Sprint Cup, and ol’ Five-Time is just another four-time. With what Rick Hendrick has had to endure as well over the past 10 years and beyond – that pretty much speaks for itself as well.

It would be beyond clichéd to consider this not a setback, but an “opportunity”. To be honest, I sincerely believe that is exactly what this is.

For SHR to shake off the stigma of being a satellite team with Hendrick Helper as the main ingredient, and a marketing arm to attract a cadre of billion dollar behemoths like Exxon-Mobil, Bass Pro Shops, GoDaddy.com, and now Anhuiser-Busch, over-coming an obstacle like this would do just that. Don’t get me wrong – not saying that it is a good thing that happened, nor should Felix Sabates try to get Chip Ganassi to stick his leg in between two rocks, but how Stewart-Haas Racing responds as a company, and how Tony Stewart manages the pieces and not concern himself with driving, could lay the foundation that firmly establishes the company and Stewart as an owner on the same level as Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, or Jack Roush.

Besides, with the physical therapy and rehabilitation that Tony Stewart will require, maybe this is the born-again moment we see from him where he starts taking training and physical preparation seriously, and drops the fat-kid schtick. Yeah I know…he’s won three titles as-is. The potential to win many more though is self-evident.

Get well soon, Tony.

********************

As I have said for the past two years, the best thing that has happened to NASCAR from a media coverage perspective is Kyle Petty.

While I think his Danica Patrick criticism wears a little thin, his analysis of drivers and driver personalities is typically spot on. His recent beef with Denny Hamlin is evidence of that. Denny does have a habit of spouting off and garnering a bit of unwanted attention – like the pair of fines he’s received from NASCAR the past couple of years for being what they considered overly-critical (though the Gen 6 comment at Phoenix this year was completely harmless, and his refusal to pay the fine a stand-up move), or this gem, “foreshadowing the future of Brad Keselowski and his future in the sport”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuIhhjN78b0&feature=player_detailpage&t=184

I understand Denny wanting to compete, drive his car, and maintain his role as the face of FedEx as well as Joe Gibbs Racing. Remember, it was a guy named Tom Brady who was filling in for injured Drew Bledsoe back in 2001, and who became the face of that organization? With the number of iconic drivers with no place to call home officially for 2014 (Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, and Mark Martin to name a few), it’s easy to see why Denny has a death-grip on his own steering wheel.

Denny Hamlin has worked hard to establish himself as the face of FedEx — but also within the pecking order at Joe Gibbs Racing. His desire to maintain his status may end up doing more long-term harm than good.

However it could be to his own detriment. The fact that Kyle Petty has been in this situation himself might cause Denny to heed some sage-like advice from somebody who has been involved in the sport since before Hamlin was born. Kyle Petty broke his leg in 1991 at Talladega, and did not rush his return to the car. The next year he went into the final race of the year in Atlanta with a legitimate shot to win the title.

Yes, that Kyle Petty.

Not the one who was wheeling under-engineered racecars the last eight years of his career, trying to salvage the most successful motorsports operation in history, while honoring the memory of his late son, maintaining The Victory Junction Gang Camp. He has given far more to this sport than anyone outside of Rick Hendrick or Bobby Allison, and deserves a bit more respect than flippantly being called a, “moron” over social media.

Denny’s not a bad guy, and he sincerely wants to help make a positive impact on the sport, his team, and with his supporters. I just think he’s being a bit short-sighted in not doing everything he can now to right himself for 2014. If his current condition lingers or heaven forbid is aggravated and worsened by an accident, then where is he at – and were does that leave FedEx and Joe Gibbs Racing?

In some respects, it’s really no different than Tony Stewart racing sprint cars on a Monday night and risking further injury to himself and distraction to his race team.

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JP
08/08/2013 08:31 AM
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I’m glad Kyle Petty is involved and speaking his mind about Nascar and drivers. He’s one of the few who pushes the envelope and will ask the risky question from time to time.

I may not agree with his opinions or actions all the time but I respect what he’s doing.

This is also why I like listening to PRN call the races, because they too will occasionally give their real opinion on the state of Nascar and ask the risky question.

We need MORE of that. (boy do I miss David Poole)

Hank
08/08/2013 09:59 AM
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You said it, JP. Kyle isn’t afraid to call someone out, and not just say “some teams” he will address them by name, number, and organization. He isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade, and his criticisms are legitimate. He’s been in the sport longer than most cup drivers have even been alive, he’s seen the ups and downs more than I would want to in my professional career.

If someone like Hamlin wishes to be shortsighted, he will have an even shorter career than the average racer already does. Denny wants to take pot shots on Twitter rather than having a man-to-man discussion. He never wants to say anything face to face, but as soon as they leave (Keselowski, Logano, now Petty), he becomes 10 feet tall and bulletproof. He’s used his car as a weapon to come after Keselowski a few years back, and did it to Logano at Bristol. His lack of respect for anyone that doesn’t share his belief has made him the most unlikeable driver in Nascar to me.

Michael in SoCal
08/08/2013 11:37 AM
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I’m a big fan of Kyle Petty’s candor. Plus, he admits when he’s wrong. He’s a standup guy.

Oldsmo-Bill
08/08/2013 01:00 PM
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…and don’t forget the time (I forget which race) when Kyle Petty gave Hamlin a good ear-beating while Hamlin was sitting in his car in the garage, then Kyle reached in and flipped Hamlin’s visor down as he walked away. Hamlin then waited until he had some of his crewmembers around and then acted like he wanted to go after Kyle. What a slimeball. I couldn’t help thinking that it was best that his team held him back, otherwise he would have gotten his a$$ kicked good.

fuzzy
08/08/2013 07:50 PM
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he’s a douche !

Ann
08/09/2013 01:29 AM
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I have to disagree with the “Hamlin isn’t a bad guy” comment For years I haven’t seen much from him to sway my opinion of him, which isn’t a good one. As for Tony, I love how he is now beloved by so many people because of his injury. I’m sorry he reminds me of the pain in the ass uncle who had a heart attack and everybody in the family complains about him, but all of a sudden you need to go to the hospital and pay your respects..your poor Uncle! Bull Tony is crazy and a bully and I stick by my opinion. I am not unhappy he is out of Sprint Cup for now, his drama is tired and not needed. IMO.

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