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Fan’s View: The Changing of the Guard – Why I’m Smiling for Tony Stewart

Editor’s Note: With Speedweeks just three weeks away, it’s time to toast 2008 one last time before moving forward. And that means we have a chance to honor the fantastic men and women that make this site tick – our talented staff of 25 writers who work hard for you each day to give the latest and greatest NASCAR news, information, and commentary. Our staff’s passion for this sport is unwavering, and their dedication unmatched – it’s because of them viewership for the site has more than doubled over the past year, even in the face of increasing concerns about declining TV ratings and fan support. People may not like the direction the sport may be headed – but based on the numbers, you like the way we’re doing our best to help turn things around.

So, it’s my pleasure to present to you a special “Best Of” week, chronicling the most popular articles our staff presented to you in 2008. They’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you cry, they’ll make you think – and hopefully, they’ll make your day just a little bit better. Enjoy, and we look forward to doing it all again in 2009!

SONYA GRADY – NEWSLETTER COLUMNIST ON TUESDAYS (FAN’S VIEW)
This column was originally published July 29th, 2008.

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, we couldn’t stop talking about the massive Silly Season upheaval due to Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s imminent departure from DEI. The moment word came down, there was… Chaos! Insanity! Panic in the streets! Entire wardrobes had to be replaced, cars underwent new paint jobs and shrubberies were chopped down. At the family dining table, arguments ensued over lost sponsorships, car numbers and blown engines. It wasn’t pretty… but it was passionate.

This week, a different kind of news conference was held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The room filled with smiling people hummed in anticipation as the guests of honor chuckled and laughed. There was even a car under wraps in the corner, waiting for the big moment. Things felt… well, sort of like this was meant to be.

Tony Stewart‘s departure from Joe Gibbs Racing is no less a news story than Junior’s was a year ago. But where is all the crying, yelling, doubt and derision this time?

The difference is all in our heads, folks. One is a story of frustration, the other a tale of triumph.

Last year, the prodigal son left the business that the revered Dale Earnhardt Sr. established. DEI was built with the intention to compete at the highest level in NASCAR because the late Dale Sr. wanted his cars to win. Once Dale Jr. jumped in the driver’s seat, the dad wanted his son to win, and the massive fanbase who supported him wanted it, too. However, that didn’t happen on quite the grand scale everybody was looking for. We held in our hearts a level of disappointment each time the No. 8 car failed to finish in the top 10. It had been a long six years since “The Man” passed away, and his memory seemed to overshadow any current accomplishments at the company he founded. Thus, when Junior decided to leave the nest in search of a team that would provide him with a real chance at winning a championship, we hesitated. There was an unsatisfied feeling that lingered, begging us to say something about a situation that would never wind up completely resolved.

On the other hand, Tony’s new No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice machine glittered under all the lights of an announcement long overdue. Flashes went off, blinding the crammed members of the media; but as the brightness faded, the excitement didn’t – for after all, this was something new. The potential for great things echoed in the room; after all, Tony’s success as a driver and track promoter practically begs us to believe that this is the start of something wonderful.

Tony is not leaving behind Joe Gibbs because of things that haven’t happened. Instead, it appears to be more of a case that there isn’t all that much left to do riding around in the No. 20. Tony arrived in the Cup Series as a young hotshot with a short temper, loudmouth and talent to spare. He won three races in his first year, and it only took him four years to take home the 2002 Cup championship – then, three more to put the matching trophy on the mantle. Next, he managed to work past his bad boy image by learning to curtail his acidic tongue… most of the time. But even when he did speak up, his occasional outbursts simply reassured his devoted following that things hadn’t changed all that much.

Time has passed, but Tony kept on his march to the top of his sport. With 32 wins under his belt, he is now known as a trusted veteran, one to be consulted in times of trouble. His fence-climbing abilities further softened his image as one we like to cheer for. Basically, the world is pretty happy with Tony and the winning Gibbs program.

But really, what more do we want from him? What more does he want from himself? Does Coach Gibbs have anything more to teach this Orange Hoosier?

Those questions tell us why the unveiling of Tony’s new ride was more like a graduation ceremony than a bitter farewell. Tony Stewart seems bent on further expanding his knowledge and abilities in the stock car scene… and after a decade, it appears that our boy has finally grown up.

Maybe Tony won’t see victory lane next year in that shiny new Chevy, but I’m not sure that is so very important: there are larger goals at stake here. In essence, Mr. Stewart has decided to take on the future of our sport with his hand on the steering wheel and the checkbook at the same time. It’s a bold move, for sure; but when such a move is made by someone like Tony, it gives me just a bit of faith in the upcoming years in NASCAR. After all, who better to take on this governing body than a driver who has always made his opinion heard – and ultimately made it matter.

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