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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fan’s View: Tony Stewart – Rising Above a Checkered Past into this Fan’s Heart

It’s always interesting to watch several races in a weekend. Different cars, storylines and personalities combine to snag my attention for hours on end. Perhaps the greatest display of diverse action appeared in two separate victory lanes this weekend.

After Saturday’s Nationwide race, the stands at Nashville nearly fell down with the echoes of boos pouring down on Kyle Busch’s victorious head. First, he burned up his tires, quite literally! And then came the expected climbing out of his car on the frontstretch, the bow to the angry mob held back by the catchfence and the snaring of the checkered flag tossed from the flagstand. Nothing truly notable there, since the Shrub is currently riding a high in fan hatred. However, I don’t think anybody expected the smashing of the Gibson guitar into itty bitty bits. When the bits weren’t small enough, Kyle swung the trophy again into the cement.

After the past week, all I could say was, “wow.” The moment didn’t actually stir my anger – I seem to be past that. The rock-star wannabe just met expectations.

Fast forward to Sunday. This time, I bit my nails watching Tony Stewart float through the final corners of the race. Was there enough gas? Yes? No? I really wanted Tony to win…

Mr. Stewart won, bringing his No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet to Victory Lane for his first points win as a car owner-driver! He managed a rather snazzy burnout down the majority of the frontstretch – and at Pocono, that’s a WOW! Next, he simply pulled to victory lane. He hugged his Dad. He hugged his crew. He climbed from his car. There was the expected spraying of sports drinks and general feeling of bonhomie. Oh, and did I mention the thunderous cheers erupting from the stands? NASCAR Nation loved this.

Wasn’t that nice? And what is so notable about Tony Stewart simply being nice? Does anybody remember a time when Tony resembled M&M’s boy in temperament?

I do.

There’s nothing like driving with a chip on your shoulder the size of Texas to make a NASCAR fan sit up and take notice. With his arrival in the Cup Series in 1999, Stewart was infamous for mouthing off to the media, pushing security members, punching emergency crews, trash talking about his fellow competitors and taking the powers that be to task for the smallest issues. In short, he excelled at being an ass.

During driver intros in his early years, Tony’s fans (the good and the bad) made just as much noise as the Jeff Gordon fans. The boos fought with the cheers. He rode around the track in the back of the pickup trucks with a shit-eating grin, just begging for somebody to say something rude. And he won. And he won some more.

Then he grew up. There’s really no other explanation for it. The headlines stopped being about what he said or did, instead they just covered his ability to win. Maybe the anger management classes helped, or perhaps it was some savvy PR moves on behalf of Home Depot. But my heart softened towards the Hoosier at about the same time he started “fixing up his house” in TV ads and climbing fences in Indy.

Oh, Tony will still walk away from the reporters after a really bad day. He still has the ability to speak before self-censoring, and as proven on Sunday, he can still win.

Would I be as happy for Stewart this week without his checkered past? I doubt it. There are other “golden boys” in this sport who excel with nice haircuts, always pressed polos and pleasant talks with the media. They provide vanilla comments and generally unexciting drama from the cockpit of their cars. Even if they have my devotion, they fail to raise my pulse rate.

On the other hand, Tony’s past performances, on and off the track, provide a dramatic backdrop for his current success. From the ashes of youthful ignorance, rises a champion worthy of the NASCAR history books.

As I think back on the weekend, I am left wondering if one other candy-colored driver is capable of earning such accolades in the future. Wouldn’t it be something if he did?

Forever the optimist, I hope so. Until then, I’ll be cheering for the No. 14 and sending the silent treatment toward the No. 18.

Follow S.D. Grady on Twitter!

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