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Thompson in Turn 5: Tony Stewart Rude, Crude & 1 of the Best

I’m not sure who I rank as the best all-around driver I have ever witnessed do battle on a racetrack; but of the three at the top of my list, only one is still active… Tony Stewart. (Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt round out my own personal all-time top three). That’s not a particularly controversial list of picks, to be sure – and certainly easy enough to defend. Of course, that’s just as long as the debate is confined to how each of these drivers handle themselves while in the driver’s seat of a variety of differing types of racecars… either on dirt or asphalt.

For how they behave outside the racetrack is a whole different story altogether.

But when the race is on, these men have always left little doubt that their talent is second to none. For example, last Sunday’s running of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway did nothing but reinforce my belief that Stewart is worthy of the high opinion I hold for him as a racecar driver. The closing laps of the event – featuring him battling NASCAR’s back-to-back Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for the race win – were classic Stewart. A two-time series champion himself, Stewart – though not quite fast enough to overtake the reigning champion – dogged Johnson lap after lap, keeping the pressure on while hoping to force the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet into making a mistake.

But in the end, Stewart was not successful, and Johnson was able to hold off the hard-charging No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. Winning the event by a mere 0.365 seconds, Johnson’s hard-fought victory did nothing to diminish my opinion of Stewart’s driving abilities. In fact, it only further reinforces my belief that Stewart is a “racer’s racer,” willing to do anything within his power to win… but within a set of time-honored racing ethics, a kind of driver’s code that he learned barnstorming midgets and sprint cars on bullrings across the United States. It was a set of career rules he learned as a young up-and-coming star in the early 1990s – and continues to live by to the present day.

“We got down there, and we couldn’t get by,” said Stewart in describing his hotly contested battle for the win at Richmond. “We did everything we could. We raced [Johnson] clean. We raced him the way he would have raced us. I wanted to race him with respect, the way he would me, and we just came up short.”

Now, that is the Tony Stewart that I have seen countless times throughout his open-wheel career, and more often than not during his successful NASCAR career. A hard-nosed, exceptionally skilled racer… but a fair competitor.

However, like my other two all-time best driver picks, there is another facet to Stewart that is, at times, difficult to embrace. A combination of Foyt, known for his quick temper, as well as Andretti’s often cocky and abrasive attitude, Stewart is not always the nicest guy to be around… superb abilities to jockey a race car aside. Though Stewart was quick to analyze the thrilling, hotly contested battle with Johnson and even compliment his rival, he was vocally perturbed that his crew was unable to get him out ahead of the No. 48 car with 28 laps remaining. So much so, in fact, that Smoke radioed a sarcastic and cutting message to his crew after taking the checkered flag in second place: “Good job, guys. Great job. We gave up another one.”

That’s not unusual for Stewart, who’s known to lash out at friends and foes alike. And that’s something Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s only crew chief since entering the Cup Series in 1999, is well aware of and seemed almost to anticipate when being on the receiving end of this latest tantrum. Immediately replying to his driver’s caustic comments, his response was quick … and it was severe. “We win and lose as a team. That’s enough of that crap,” he said in a tone that quickly turned Stewart’s mouth shut.

Yet even after the veteran was rebuffed by his crew chief, Stewart remained unhappy with his fourth second-place finish of a winless season. He continued to huff and puff, chastise pit road reporters for their choice of questions, and generally pout before finally leaving the racetrack in frustration. Indeed, such juvenile behavior is not at all uncommon for the 37-year-old Stewart when he is unhappy with his final results. It’s behavior that at times has seen him even become physical with officials, reporters, fans, and even fellow drivers.

It’s also ironic, especially considering Stewart is quick to call out other drivers that do not conduct themselves during a race as he believes they should. He at times publicly berates competitors for slowing him up – and other times for racing him overaggressively. The list of those that have been publicly admonished by the former champion is long, and it’s one that not even teammates are exempt from. Just ask Denny Hamlin

Poor behavior is nothing new at the race track where Stewart is concerned. Even his most loyal supporters, though obviously with more tolerance than I for such antics, cannot deny that there have been instances when they would have preferred that their favorite driver had exercised more personal restraint over his emotions.

But as hot-tempered as Stewart may be, his “bad boy” image has endeared him to many race fans that seem to both excuse his bursts of anger and condone his bad behavior all at once. Fans often cite the fact that Stewart at least is not restrained by political correctness and resists the urge to become “vanilla” – a “disease” many of NASCAR’s most successful drivers have been accused of catching.

This endless debate all came to a head over the past week, when the magazine Rolling Stone published a feature story written by Mike Guy on Stewart, complete with the incredibly long title of, “Where There’s Smoke… NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart brawls, cusses, eats way too many doughnuts, and (usually) drives a race car better than anyone on earth. How did a potbellied prima donna become the soul of auto racing?” The author shadowed Stewart from track to track earlier this season and shared snippets of the driver in such private areas as his motorcoach and at home back in Columbus, Ind. In reading through his work, it’s clear the end product was not for those sensitive to raw language, sexually explicit comments or derogatory references to women.

Many stalwart Stewart fans immediately dismissed the article as just “Tony being Tony,” or “Tony taking a slap at NASCAR” by, as the thought process goes, intentionally giving the kind of interview that would irritate the organization and their goal of maintaining a family-friendly image. They claim Stewart knew that there was nothing that NASCAR could do about it, that he is bucking the system and proving he truly is a rebel by agreeing to be the subject of this piece.

But it’s hard to intentionally “buck the system” when you continue to shape your public perception day in, day out with your actions at the racetrack. The article is reaffirmation of what anyone that has objectively observed Stewart’s questionable behavior on many occasions already knew: In spite of his positive attributes, Stewart is quite often a petulant and ill-mannered man, despite being a person that has demonstrated the ability to conduct himself properly. At the very least, he is certainly old enough to know the difference between crude conduct and behavior that one would expect from a man of his position and stature – but still chooses to cross the line regardless of that knowledge.

To be sure, Stewart could care less what I or anyone else thinks of him. When questioned about the offensive nature of the Rolling Stone article, rather than to try to put the harsh contents of the piece in perspective or attempt to minimize any negative fallout that some of his more startling comments might produce, he stood by the themes of the article instead. “…Rolling Stone is an edgy magazine, and it was an edgy article. Nobody forces that in front of anybody, so if you don’t like what you’re reading, don’t read it,” said Stewart when asked if he was concerned that some might find the piece offensive.

Well, I read it and wasn’t particularly offended… or, for that matter, particularly surprised. If anything the writer, regardless of his motives, gave NASCAR fans an up close and personal look at the man affectionately known as “Smoke” from behind the glare of the public eye. It was a glimpse into the ugly side that Stewart possesses… without apology.

But what about the positive attributes? Well, for one thing, Stewart likes children. Anyone that has ever witnessed him conduct himself around kids knows that he genuinely loves to see them smile. In fact, probably no other driver in NASCAR – with the possible exceptions of Kyle Petty and Jeff Gordon – can lay claim to doing more to help brighten children’s days and future than Stewart.

And despite the man’s sometimes improper conduct, he is without a doubt a person with a soft heart that has lent aid to a number of worthy causes. For example, Stewart recently donated a tremendous amount of money to assist families in and around his hometown of Columbus, Ind., ravaged by floods the last few months. This side of Stewart is far removed from the rough talking, quick-tempered thug-like persona that he also is capable of demonstrating.

So, it’s clear to me there are several different Tony Stewarts we see juggled in front of the public; but I have never understood why he doesn’t just let the rude, crude, easy to dislike one go. It has never gained him a thing, and has created more turmoil than it would seem he would care to have in his life. But for whatever reason, Stewart never has been able to shake the “Bad Boy” image… and after all these years, it is starting to appear that he never may.

As a driver, though… Tony’s still one of my all-time top three.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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