It is no longer particularly noteworthy when Tony Stewart attacks fellow competitors that impede him in his never-ending pursuit of winning NASCAR Nextel Cup races. In fact, it has almost become expected that Tony will provide choice derogatory critiques to nationwide audiences of his fellow competitors; all they need to do is challenge his on-track progress or find themselves swapping paint with the two-time Cup champion to become the focus of his wrath. Up until Saturday night, when Stewart directed his patented brand of vindictiveness towards his own teammate, Denny Hamlin, many have attempted to justify and excuse the nine-year veteran’s chronic poor behavior. However, Stewart’s verbal bashing of Hamlin during the telecast of the Pepsi 400 was so clearly uncalled for and beyond defending that even the staunchest of his supporters have been left speechless.
Stewart, after clearly plowing into the rear of race leader Hamlin’s FedEx Chevrolet, with no apparent attempt to avoid the collision, gave a “jaw-dropping” account to viewers of what they had just witnessed for themselves on TV, and from a number of angles, no less… including the No. 20’s own in-car camera.
“All of a sudden, he just stops on the exit of turn 4 in front of 42 cars, and he can’t expect all of us to drive around him. He just wrecked two really good racecars,” said the veteran of Hamlin, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Continuing his condemnation of Hamlin, now in his sophomore season as a full-time Nextel Cup driver, Stewart said, “He tried to wreck us in practice on Friday and didn’t get it done. At least he finished it off today. [Hamlin’s] a young guy and he wants to be successful, but I don’t know if he knows what the definition of ‘team’ is right now.”
That Stewart’s interpretation of what had occurred was so riddled with inaccuracies is somewhat surprising, but his classless remarks leveled at his generally well-liked teammate have confirmed what many have long alleged, that Stewart can be a world-class jerk. A few may argue that Hamlin did momentarily lift from the accelerator to control his car as it wiggled in turn 4, though Hamlin insists that he “kept his foot in it.” Other stalwart Stewart apologists might even swear, lacking any evidence to support such a theory, that the man tried to avoid the collision – after all, who wants to be involved in a wreck in the first place? But no one can offer a reasonable argument that Stewart’s mean-spirited public attack, questioning not only Hamlin’s driving abilities, but also his character, was at all necessary or appropriate.
Truth be told, there may be some fault on both drivers’ parts. Things happen at high speeds; most fans accept that. Maybe Hamlin could have moved up the racetrack and conceded the low groove to his teammate. Likewise, if Stewart suspected problems with Hamlin or his racecar’s handling, well, Daytona International Speedway provides multiple racing lines that he could have used, especially when running single file in the lead draft. Hamlin may have possibly slowed more than he believed in “catching” his Chevrolet as the car twitched underneath him. Perhaps Stewart was distracted while monitoring gauges, or was in the midst of talking to his crew and just didn’t react quickly enough. But what most assuredly didn’t happen, as Stewart wanted viewers to believe, is that Hamlin, second in driver points going into the race, was solely responsible for wrecking two really good racecars.
This time, fans are not just rolling their eyes and dismissing the incident in the manner that many have in the past by saying, “ahhhh, that’s just Tony Stewart,” in part because they realize it is Tony Stewart. Bad behavior is a chronic condition, sometimes a fatal flaw with a man who I personally believe to be the most talented driver in the United States. But talent alone does not give Stewart, or anyone in any walk of life, a “free pass” to essentially trash others at will. In short, there should be no exemptions from basic standards of sportsmanlike conduct; especially if you’re a superstar at the sport’s highest level.
The list of transgressions during the veteran’s nine seasons in Cup racing is long, filled with incidents of not only verbal but also physical attacks on fellow competitors and, on at least one occasion, photographers. A 2002 physical altercation with a freelance photographer resulted in not only NASCAR fining the former open-wheel star $10,000 and placing him on probation, but the incident caused his team sponsor Home Depot to levy a $50,000 fine and probation as well. A contrite Stewart then announced in the aftermath of the lambasting that he received from his sponsor, team owner, fans and media that he would be entering anger management counseling and offered that, “This is my heart attack, my wake-up call. There is no excuse for what I’ve done. I’m sorry, and I don’t really expect anyone to forgive me.”
“I have a problem with keeping my emotions in check,” Stewart continued. “After all of this, I’ve felt as I’ve never felt. But it’s probably exactly what I needed to make me seek help. A hard fall like this will tend to jar me back to reality. I’m looking forward to making myself better; better as a person and better in dealing with the things life sends your way – the good and the bad.”
Stewart did complete his counseling, but what benefit that it had on his ability to hold his emotions in check, or to deal with disappointments, are difficult to discern. For a period of time, most notably during his 2005 championship year, he did show a marked improvement in his behavior. But since his second title, Stewart has returned to littering the tracks with personal attacks, intentionally executed in front of cameras to gain maximum exposure against numerous drivers. Some wheelmen having been publicly “called out” by the Indiana native recently include Kurt and Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, David Gilliland, Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. No doubt, there’s more to come; after all, we’re only halfway through the season at this point. As the often agitated Stewart recently announced, “[The criticism] doesn’t bother me. I can be politically correct like everybody else and then listen to everybody gripe like they did a couple of years ago. Everybody complained about how vanilla I was and how they didn’t like it.”
“Obviously, either way, I can’t win and can’t make everybody happy, so I might as well do it my way.”
Safe to assume Stewart did it his way Saturday night. Unfortunately for Hamlin, he was a man who stood in Stewart’s way on the racetrack – and he paid the price.
There are no good excuses for Stewart’s transgression. “Ultra-competitiveness” just doesn’t cut it; neither does the common excuse, “he just can’t control his tongue.” The heart of the matter is, Stewart does know how to act, and quite often can be quite engaging and likable. And he has, on many, many occasions shown that he is an exceptionally charitable person. But he has been down this road of publicly humiliating his fellow drivers far too many times to have not learned how to refrain from it. He knows what the fallout is, the negative impact that it has on those that he targets. Let’s face it, he doesn’t care enough to simply quit doing it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t put himself in the position he’s been in.
So, how did Hamlin, 10 years Stewart’s junior and far less experienced, handle the former champ’s unfair charges against him? Well, as if he was the more experienced, wiser, and accomplished teammate. “I’m going to be the bigger man and I’ll take the blame on this,” said Hamlin. “If he wants to blame it on me, I’ll be the bigger man and take responsibility for it.
“He’s been around this sport longer than I have and he probably knows more than I do, so I’ll just take it for what it’s worth.”
That, Tony, is the definition of ‘team.’ Maybe one day, you’ll learn that word.