NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Tony Stewart Center of Controversy Once Again

Tony Stewart has been known to hobknob with more than a few celebrities. Chief among them – and one of his biggest fans – is none other than Kid Rock. One of his songs entitled, “Devil Without A Cause” contains the line, same game, same name, ain’t a damn thing changed.

Those lyrics from one of Stewart’s supporters actually came to mind this past week following the veteran’s latest dustup. Following the final practice session for the Bud Shootout this past Friday evening, Stewart tangled with Kurt Busch entering turn 3. On their way back to the pits, Busch took note that Tony’s car wasn’t as badly damaged as his, and tried to make a few cosmetic adjustments to the Home Depot Camry to help even the score. It’s obvious what happened next: the two were summoned to the NASCAR hauler for the requisite admonishment and “you need us more than we need you” rebuke that drivers have become accustomed to after misbehaving. There’s just one thing out of the ordinary; shortly after the meeting, it was reported that Stewart took a swing at Busch in the hauler.

Surprised?

There really isn’t much need for shock – feigned or otherwise. Since Stewart came to the series nearly a decade ago, this behavior has been par for the course for the driver known as the Rushville Rocket. He is never at a loss for words, and not exactly one to shy away from conflict.

Why, who can forget Martinsville in 1999, when – after Stewart spun out Kenny Irwin Jr. twice earlier in the race – Irwin repaid the favor. Stewart had a chance to win the event that day; but instead, Irwin gave him a shot entering turn 1, sending him sliding up into the wall. After the wreck, Stewart waited for Irwin, mock clapping in appreciation of his efforts before chucking his heel pads at him. Surprisingly – for reasons known only to the two drivers – Irwin stopped following the throws, allowing Tony to reach in the car and try to take a swing at him until Irwin recognized his mistake and drove away – with half of Stewart still in his car.

Following the final practice session for the Daytona 500 in 2000, Stewart made contact with Robby Gordon in about the same place on the track that he got into it with Busch last Friday. In the garage, Tony and Robby exchanged words and had a bit of a disagreement over who was at fault for the wreck. Tony got the last words in, looked at Robby… then shoved him. But much to Tony’s surprise, Gordon wasn’t as understanding as many drivers in the garage area are; he grabbed Stewart by the collar, and walked him backwards slowly until the two were separated. Later, Stewart could be seen sitting on a tire talking to NASCAR’s Gary Nelson, with friend and fellow competitor Mark Martin looking at him, shaking his head and chuckling.

By 2002, much was being made of Tony’s self-destructive behavior and impact it was beginning to have on the rest of the Home Depot team. The controversy peaked when Stewart hit a photographer after the Brickyard 400, leading to a $10,000 fine and public apology to freelancer Gary Mook. Following a win at Watkins Glen that next week, driver and crew chief Greg Zipadelli were both emotional in Victory Lane, and Stewart made note of his actions and how they had negatively impacted the team. Later, it would be revealed that Stewart came very close to losing his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. But cooler heads prevailed, and later that year, the team went on to narrowly win the Winston Cup championship. At the time, former Washington Redskins head coach and team owner Joe Gibbs was heralded for helping to settle down his driver who – although passionate and supremely talented – was also given to regressing into what resembled a petulant teenager. For a little while, at least, it appeared that the kinder, gentler Tony Stewart was indeed reformed.

During that time, though, has much really changed? From the early days of having to be separated by his car owner from NASCAR officials, slapping tape recorders out of reporter’s hands and kicking them under a trailer, to engaging in an awkward live on-air indictment of Darrell Waltrip’s last few years on the circuit, the answer is painfully clear: not a whole lot.

In 2006, Stewart was lamenting the rough driving, bumpdrafting, and blocking that was going on during the Bud Shootout. So much so, in fact, that he said somebody was going to die during the Daytona 500 if it continued. Well, he was almost right; and if it happened, he would have been the cause of it. After swerving across four lanes of racetrack going into turn 3 (is there a pattern developing here at Daytona?) to block Matt Kenseth, the maneuver forced Kenseth into the grass – causing him to spin back across the rest of the field which was approaching at 190 mph. Thankfully, Kenseth and the other drivers escaped unscathed, and Stewart was seen turning the in-car camera away from himself following the episode.

In 2007, Stewart brought to light the rash of “phantom cautions” for “debris” on the racetrack. Making pointed comments on his national radio show, NASCAR quickly took him to task for it; but alas, it also seemed to suddenly quell the pandemic yellow flags for which no safety trucks were dispatched. In that case, Stewart’s temper worked to the advantage of everyone involved with the sport; it took Stewart starting a controversy in order to settle NASCAR’s fickle rulebook.

STAFF SIDE-BY-SIDE: WHOSE FAULT – BUSCH OR STEWART?

Now, here we begin 2008 with another incident between Busch, Stewart, and allegedly Stewart’s fist. It has not been the first time the two have tangled; at the 2007 Daytona 500, the two were dominating the event, right until they took each other out. Stewart appeared to check up a bit exiting turn 4, and Busch could not avoid him; it’s not unlike the incident that would transpire between Stewart and teammate Denny Hamlin in the summer race a few months later. That June at Dover, Stewart turned Busch into the wall early in the event; this meeting of metal would lead to Busch being parked after he opted to fly down pit road a little too close to one of Stewart’s crewmen to make his displeasure known.

So, what might be done about his Stewart and his latest antics?

Hopefully, nothing.

NASCAR has been chided in recent years for becoming too politically correct and corporately sterilized for our protection. Having been overrun with drivers who say the right things, give canned responses that would make a presidential candidate squirm with unease, and look like they would be more at home hocking hair gel rather than organizing a dirt-track race at Eldora, Stewart’s brazen behavior and candor are a throwback to an era often thought long gone by many fans. He says what’s on his mind, admits when he has made a mistake, and isn’t afraid to get into it after the helmet comes off.

That feeds into the philosophy for the 2008 Sprint Cup season, one that’s aimed at getting back to NASCAR’s roots. The sport has publicly stated they’d like the drivers to say what’s on their minds; well, it’s safe to say that Tony Stewart already got the memo. I suppose that it’s really no surprise, then, that his current hairdo looks conspicuously similar to Sylvester Stallone’s in the latest installment of Rambo; to me, it’s actually wholly appropriate. One of the few lines of dialogue in that film has John Rambo uttering the phrase, “You ain’t changing nothin’.”

Let’s hope so.

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