Wasn’t it good to see the lovable curmudgeon himself, Tony Stewart, back in action at Richmond International Raceway this past Sunday? The sport needs characters, not automaton sponsor-spouting shills and there can be no question Smoke fits squarely into the first category. In the end it was a relatively ho hum lead lap 19th-place finish for Stewart sandwiched between former teammate, Ryan Newman, and up-and-coming Austin Dillon. When asked post-race by FOX Sports how he felt about his day, Stewart was effusive: “How much fun I had in it.” It was a point he also made on Twitter noting: “It’s been overwhelming this weekend with friends, drivers, crew members, and officials welcoming me back as a driver. Makes me smile ?”. Simply put, we should cherish the last season of Tony Stewart the driver. Sure, he’ll still be around as an owner, and, I suspect, in that role for many years, but we’ll not likely an old-school call-it-like-he-sees-it driver quite like Stewart again. You wonder whether a 20-year old Tony Stewart would get a Cup ride in today’s climate. Perhaps not. Either way, I’ll enjoy watching him this year and hopefully we’ll see another win or two to add to his illustrious record.
Driver Council Flexes Their Muscles:
And while I’m on the subject of Tony Stewart, a quick word on the $35,000 fine he received for commenting on the lug nut (or lack thereof) situation this season. “I guarantee you that envelope is going to keep getting pushed until somebody gets hurt,” said Stewart of the growing concern about fully tightened wheels. “You will not have heard a rant that’s going to be as bad as what’s going to come out of my mouth if a driver gets hurt because of a loose wheel that hurts one of them. With all the crap we’re going through with all the safety stuff, and for them to sit there and sit on their hands on this one … this is not a game you play with safety and that’s exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this. This is not the way to do this.” And yes, it is a strongly worded statement for sure, but you can’t deny Stewart has a fair point. This lug nut situation has had capability for disaster. NASCAR’s response to Tony’s opinion was predictably draconian – fining the three-time champion $35,000. It was a fine that the Drivers’ Council then stepped up to pay in solidarity of their fellow driver. Jeff Gordon said on the TV broadcast that Tony Stewart was “blown away” and “it meant the world to him,” but he would in fact donate the money to charity and still pay the fine. Stewart’s philanthropy aside, this is an interesting move because the drivers are essentially saying that they will take action against NASCAR where they deem it necessary. Why do I suspect this isn’t the last time this happens? You just wonder if this is the start of the floodgates opening in this regard. It’s one to watch with close interest, that’s for sure.
Next up, we head to the treacherous high banks of the 2.66-mile behemoth of a track, Talladega Superspeedway, for the second restrictor-plate race of four we’ll see in total this season. And after the finish to the first plate race this year (the Daytona 500), it’s hard to know how we top that, but if any track can one-up that result, Talladega would be the track. This will be Cup race number 94 at the famous old venue; a streak that runs all the way back to 1969. The last trip to Alabama, in the 2015 Chase, ended up as what can best be described as a complete fiasco, so here’s hoping this Sunday’s race ends in a more “traditional” fashion. It’s hard to believe there won’t be a modicum of controversy – this is Talladega after all – but what is for certain is that we can’t afford to end up with such an acrimonious finish. We’ve seen seven different winners in the last seven races, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see an eighth different winner this weekend. And while I’m on the subject of streaks, can one of the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet win making it five straight for the powerhouse team at Cup level? Either way, Talladega is, for me at least, a can’t-miss race.
As someone who makes a living in the advertising world, it was great to see the Dew-cision promotion this past weekend, which I thought was a truly integrated and clever campaign featuring TV commercials, social media, digital content, a voting component and separately branded firesuits and paint schemes. NASCAR is such a fertile platform for sponsors given the high levels of brand loyalty NASCAR fans have always shown and this for me is a great way to tie in a brand-product level decision into the already large racing program. These sort of campaigns are hard to get right and in fact it’s often easier to screw them up rather than get them right, so kudos to Mountain Dew on a great job.
And finally this week, a quick word on Carl Edwards‘ last corner bump and run on teammate Kyle Busch to win the race. I have to be honest and say I didn’t think Carl had it in him: witness the rather more timid attempt to pass a slower Kevin Harvick on the final lap at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this season. This time round Edwards was not to be denied as he unceremoniously moved Kyle out of the racing line on his way to a second straight victory and signature back flip. Kyle appeared to take it in his stride post race and while I’m sure there might be some uncomfortable team meetings at JGR this week I don’t think this will become an issue. That being said, if the roles are reversed later in the season, Kyle will unquestionably take his shot. In the past I’ve been quick to criticize Edwards for being too nice and for not capitalizing on the moment, but this past Sunday there’s no question he did just that and he did it in style.
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