Did You Notice? … Tony Stewart is back in the news for his temper? A video posted by TMZ Sports, among many others, allege Stewart punched a heckler at a sprint car race in Jackson, Minn. the weekend of July 27. Stewart can be seen chasing after the race fan once the two have a heated exchange.
Stewart, who still moonlights on short tracks, hasn’t run a NASCAR race since November 2016, but he remains visible as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and as the mastermind behind Eldora Speedway. His continued importance begs the question whether this incident will have any type of impact on stock car racing.
Unfortunately, this type of behavior is nothing new for a man who’s had a long, complicated history of losing his cool. Some moments were just silly, like this glove-throwing incident with Kenny Irwin Jr. as a NASCAR Cup Series rookie in 1999.
But at his low point, Stewart’s temper led to controversy and clouded a tragedy that will forever help define him. Stewart, again moonlighting in sprint cars, struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a summer 2014 race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. Ward had wrecked after battling Stewart, appeared angry with him and was walking toward Stewart’s car when he was struck and killed. Some observers felt Stewart had gunned the engine to scare Ward and intentionally turned toward him with tragic results.
A grand jury ultimately chose not to indict Stewart on manslaughter or negligent homicide but a civil case with the Wards was settled years later for an undisclosed sum. Ward’s mother, Pamela, still feels the punishment should have been much stronger, documented in a November 2018 article for USA Today.
“It really hurts to see him out there enjoying his life when, in my opinion, he should be in jail for manslaughter,” Pamela Ward said of Stewart. “He’s out there racing and enjoying his life every single weekend. That’s something my son would love to be doing, but he’s six feet in the ground because of Tony Stewart.”
No matter the outcome in court, it’s an incident that still weighs heavily on Stewart’s mind, something he’ll never forget the rest of his life. Certainly, as a NASCAR driver, it felt like an emotional blow from which he never truly recovered. The three-time Cup champion won just one race after returning and was out of the sport as a full-time driver two years later.
It was a transition Stewart seemed he truly needed for closure.
“I just want to show up at the races,” the driver said of his retirement, documented by USA Today last November. “Go to the shop, hang out with the guys.”
But Stewart still remains a key owner and decision-maker in a sport who covets his expertise. He’s only age 48 in a sport where the owners who house the 2019 main championship contenders, Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs, are 82 and 78, respectively. A NASCAR in rebuild mode needs a guy like Stewart on the front lines, creating quality racing ideas like what we’ll see Thursday (Aug. 1) at Eldora for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
Public incidents like this one, though, limit his ability to be influential. It puts Stewart in the limelight the week of Eldora for all the wrong reasons, a national story that transcends the sport and feeds into some of NASCAR’s negative perceptions. Think these drivers are just a bunch of wild-swinging rednecks? That leadership can’t get their you-know-what together? Last weekend’s video helps reinforce all of that — regardless of how out of line the fan’s comments were.
Add in the black cloud of Ward’s death, reappearing this same weekend (Watkins Glen) and it leaves Stewart little margin for error in the public eye. It’s a bad look for the sport also approaching a one-year anniversary of former CEO Brian France’s DWI mere days after Chase Elliott won the 2018 race at Watkins Glen.
Did You Notice? … The rarity of Hendrick Motorsports making a crew chief change? Chad Knaus was Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief for 16+ years at HMS. His replacement at the No. 48, Kevin Meendering? He lasted just 21 races.
But it’s not just the short stint that’s surprising here. HMS typically waits until after the season in order to make any type of major personnel move like this one. For instance, there was the infamous press conference called just before Thanksgiving 2010 when three of the four HMS teams switched head wrenches after disappointing seasons. The rumors had been around for months, writing clearly on the wall but everyone committed to finishing out the year.
In fact, this decade an in-season crew chief change has only happened once at HMS. In 2017, with Kahne headed out the door Keith Rodden was replaced by Darian Grubb in the midst of the NASCAR playoffs. Before that, you have to go back to the Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Tony Eury Jr. fiasco in 2009 in order to find this type of major course correction mid-year.
For me, the move serves as a reminder of Johnson’s sense of urgency. As I wrote last week, Johnson is in the midst of a winless slump fellow legendary drivers never recovered from. With possible retirement looming, there’s no guarantee he gets more than two shots at an eighth title. Add in the importance of that postseason streak (15-for-15 in making the playoffs) and there’s no time to waste here. Do it now and see if it sparks a turnaround. After all, this team was never supposed to be in rebuild mode. They’re expected to bring home championships yearly. Incremental change just wasn’t enough.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- The news Richard Childress Racing is looking to place Tyler Reddick in Cup for 2020 should hardly come as a surprise to anyone. His ninth-place finish at Kansas Speedway earlier this season was one of the team’s best, besting current RCR Cup rookie Daniel Hemric outside of Daytona and Talladega until his seventh-place finish at Pocono Sunday. It doesn’t feel like Hemric is in trouble but in a disappointing year for the organization, who knows? With limited sponsorship, anything can happen. We certainly know Austin Dillon isn’t going anywhere….
- Hat tip to our Danny Peters (currently on paternity leave) who pointed out the limited number of playoff points at the top. With five regular season races left, Kyle Busch leads the Cup Series with 28 playoff points; Martin Truex Jr. is second with 22. That’s a lot but far less than the 35 and 33, respectively, Busch and Kevin Harvick had at this point in 2018. More parity at the top will lead to more pressure in the round of 8 this fall as there’s no insurmountable advantage for anyone – at least right now.