NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Tony Stewart Still Paying For WWE Comments

As everyone watching saw last Sunday, there was a marked difference in Tony Stewart‘s post-race demeanor between Atlanta and Bristol.

After being dumped by Kevin Harvick at Bristol, which relegated him to a 14th-place finish in a race he dominated for most of the day, Stewart said as little as possible; a few sentences sarcastically taking the blame for the incident and he was out of there. There probably wasn’t anything he could say on television that described how he felt, but the fact that Harvick and Stewart are good friends had to be even more conflicting. What can you say after being punted by someone who is going to wax your back in two days?

His close friendship with Harvick notwithstanding, though, the tight-lipped interview was quite a contrast with Tony’s post-race comments after Atlanta. After that one, Stewart let it all hang out – as only he can – in his rant about Goodyear. He pointed out, in so many words, that no other series considered their tires to be adequate, and that they should be ashamed of the product they put out on the track. He even threw in a superlative or two: like describing the Atlanta tire as the most pathetic tire he had ever raced on.

Talk about harsh. So, why the difference? At the very least, from these two incidents the NASCAR world can probably surmise that Stewart isn’t as tight with Goodyear as he is with Harvick.

But friendship aside, Smoke walks a tightrope these days; let’s not forget, the man is still on probation following his Daytona incident with Kurt Busch. If he wasn’t, one wonders whether his post-Atlanta diatribe might have been directed at NASCAR instead of Goodyear.

That assertion is made in the context of Stewart’s recent history. Not quite a year ago, as most of us remember, he openly fumed on his radio show about debris cautions playing a part in denying him a win at Phoenix. He called it “playing God” and accused the sanctioning body of not caring about the integrity of the sport. Had he left it at that, the words might not have warranted the heavy corrective hand of NASCAR; but he pushed the hot button further, comparing the sport to the WWE. Stewart wasn’t the first person to say it by a long shot, but he was the first driver to openly repeat what fans, media and even some quiet whispers in the garage had been saying.

The man had a point… somewhat. But instead of accusing NASCAR of throwing phony cautions to bunch up the field, he might have been better served had he questioned why yellows were being thrown for a piece of foam on the track at Phoenix, two months after it took NASCAR an eternity to throw a yellow flag when a dozen cars were wrecking at Daytona on the final lap.

Most of us remember the drama that followed those comments. Predictably, NASCAR was furious and wouldn’t let the No. 20 car out of the hauler the following week in Talladega until Tony was summoned into the hauler for a good talking-to… or a good paddle-whooping, however you look at it. Stewart reportedly heard the standard “you need us more than we need you” speech (which probably caused him, at least mentally, to make obscene wrist-jerking gestures), was fined $10,000 (“officially” for skipping a post-race interview, although Aric Almirola got away with doing just that following a Busch Series race a few weeks later), and was placed on probation for the rest of 2007.

While Stewart was contrite when interviewed, most hardly believed the man had pulled a 180 in the matter of seven days. With the penalties in hand, the veteran stepped back, and the end result was that NASCAR looked both disingenuous and arrogant. Point, orange.

Deep down, Stewart had to be shaking his head at NASCAR’s sensitivity. Have you ever seen a wrestler accuse the WWE sanctioning body of fixing the sport? The whole idea of that would be laughable. Tony must have thought no one would take his WWE comment at face value because of the obvious point: that if NASCAR really was rigged, its participants wouldn’t be saying so.

But the powers that be didn’t respond well to insults. And since Smoke seems to spend most of his time on probation these days, he surely knows now that he has to bite his tongue when it comes to criticizing NASCAR. He may not care personally – and that’s what makes the wait for the possible release of his memoirs someday worthwhile – but he has teammates and a sponsor that are invested heavily in the fortunes of the Home Depot No. 20 car. And he recognizes that.

“I don’t think it’s worth it, to be honest,” he said in a media teleconference back in January about speaking out. “Most of the people you deal with on a weekly basis, nine out of the 10 get it and know what you mean; but the 10th person that doesn’t get it makes it not worth it. It’s just a lot easier just to be kind of plain-Jane and know that when you leave the track Sunday night, you don’t have to go to work Monday and Tuesday putting out fires.”

With that in mind, Stewart’s harangue in Atlanta could be viewed as an indirect way of going after NASCAR. Everyone knows that whatever problems Goodyear may be having, the new car is the root of their issues at the moment. Goodyear may be sincerely trying to bring a quality tire to the track, but they are obviously as mystified by the new car design as most of the teams and drivers are. That doesn’t leave the the company blameless; after seven years of research for the Snow Plow of Today (the SPoT), it’s hard to believe that some fairly important things, such as what compound of rubber will be between the car and the track, apparently weren’t thought out enough. But while Goodyear may bear some responsibility for the SPoT’s handling problems, ultimately NASCAR should be on the hot seat for not working out tire compounds with their only supplier before putting 43 cars on a speedway to race at 200 mph for 500 miles.

The bottom line is that the SPoT needs a lot of work that can’t all be done by the teams, and that may well be what Stewart was driving at in an indirect way. Coming at it from that perspective, he may have spared Harvick his usual post-wreck vitriol after Bristol not just out of friendship but out of simple class solidarity, since Harvick has to drive the SPoT every week, too.

It is to NASCAR’s credit, I suppose, that they did not lower the boom on Stewart after his bashing of the official tire supplier – even if they would have had a tough time explaining why a penalty would have been justified. They may finally be anticipating fan backlash at their often open-ended rule enforcement; or maybe, Brian France really meant it when he said NASCAR is going to loosen drivers’ leashes a little bit.

But based on past history, even without a penalty you wouldn’t be surprised if Stewart thought about the ramifications of two weeks straight of over the line outbursts. And that’s a shame; because it’s part of Stewart’s personality to go over the line sometimes. No question about it. If and when he does again, NASCAR should just let him rip. Many times, there is at least a grain of truth to his rants, and from a ratings standpoint, they’re always entertaining. NASCAR doesn’t mind if people tune in just for the wrecks. They should consider that some folks just might watch to see what Stewart is going to do or say this week. Punish him if he spins someone on pit road, but not if he says Vince McMahon could do a better job running the sport. NASCAR’s and Goodyear’s brass are big boys. They can handle it.

But considering the circumstances, perhaps Stewart did well to temper it a little bit at Bristol; some time needs to pass without incident so he gets off probation, and NASCAR isn’t watching him so closely.

That way, when one of his trademark tirades is truly justified, he can spew as needed for maximum impact.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Couldn’t FOX have gotten someone to sit in for D.W. at Bristol? Frankly, listening to his laryngitic insight was less than helpful. It was nice that they gave him his Bristol-winning car and all, but they didn’t need the man in the booth for that. It’s great that Waltrip’s showing up for work sick, but is it really being a team player when a commentator is that hoarse?
  • Speaking of the broadcast, does anyone know why the scrolling leaderboard only showed the top 10 drivers most of the time? Excuse me? Doesn’t Chris Myers care? Surely, FOX was aware of the complaints that fans only hear about the Chase drivers in the final 10 races.
  • How funny is the talking parrot in the NAPA commercial? Michael Waltrip has been pretty easygoing about taking abuse from his sponsor about the No. 55 team’s performance. I wonder if he has a commercial prepared if the No. 55 wins one, though. “Just so everyone knows, I got the parts for this car at Advance Auto Parts, who knew that was all I needed?”
  • Dario Franchitti proved my point about not needing a minimum age in Cup. As far as I can tell, he is over 21, and it was obvious he was in no way ready for Thunder Valley. It’s not necessarily his fault; but the performance this week was a good reason for drivers to spend a year in the Nationwide or Craftsman Truck Series before they move to Cup.

And so goes Happy Hour this week. Have a fine Easter, and see you before Martinsville.

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