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Keeping Pace

Thu., May 28, 2009, 12:40 a.m.

Tony Stewart: Fiery, fast and fearless

Tony Stewart (Photo Credit: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR) (Sam Greenwood / The Spokesman-Review)
Tony Stewart (Photo Credit: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR) (Sam Greenwood / The Spokesman-Review)

The best story of the past several weeks -- of the entire season, if you ask me -- can be summed up in two words: Tony Stewart.

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

It would be disingenuous to pretend that there haven’t been any somewhat less than positive things going on in the NASCAR community in recent weeks, ranging from surprising suspensions to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s perplexing inability to remember exactly where his pit box is located.

I wouldn’t judge Junior too harshly on that one, by the way. I routinely lose my car in parking lots and have to hit the panic button to find it. Stuff happens.

Anyway, the point is there’s been a lot to talk about. What worries me, however, is that I’m afraid we may be talking about the wrong things.

The best story of the past several weeks -- of the entire season, if you ask me -- can be summed up in two words: Tony Stewart.

A lot of racing conversations I have begin with the words, “I’m really not a Tony Stewart fan, but...”

Then we take a walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Clichés and throw around phrases like “fire in the belly” and “drive the wheels off a race car” and “isn’t afraid of anything”.

Well, OK, all that’s true. Stewart definitely has the “fire in his belly,” which I get sometimes, too, but usually only after I eat too much Mexican food. (He might want to think about bringing an antacid sponsorship on board to help with that. It works for me. Just a suggestion.)

Tony Stewart is a proven winner in anything you’d care to mention. He has championship trophies from the World Karting Association, the United States Auto Club (USAC) series, the Indy Racing League (IRL), and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

He certainly can “drive the wheels off a race car,” although I remain unconvinced that’s a good thing in the stock car racing arena. The cars just seem to go faster when their tires are securely attached.

He landed a pretty decent job in 1999 when Joe Gibbs Racing put him in a Cup car full-time. Predictably, he drove the wheels off it, winning Rookie of the Year honors and then going on to win Cup Series championships in 2002 and 2005.

Let’s stop for a moment and compare this to something that might happen in your own world -- if you lived in a dream world, that is. What we’re basically talking about here is a guy who was given the top job in his company, did exceptionally well at it and was handsomely rewarded for his achievements in every way that matters.

Talk about a best-case career scenario. If I’m that guy, I’m planting myself in that seat so tightly that Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne and James Bond combined couldn’t pry me out of it, and those guys are pretty competent at their own jobs. Scarily so, one might say.

But since he “isn’t afraid of anything,” Tony Stewart relinquished his cushy seat voluntarily.

The biggest-name driver at one of the biggest-name teams in all of NASCAR announced in July 2008 that he had asked to be released from his contract at JGR, and the request had been granted.

Stewart, fans learned, would move to Haas CNC Racing, and would assume ownership of half the team, to be renamed Stewart-Haas Racing.

This set some Stewart fans to nervously nibbling their nails. He started the 2009 season with no owner’s points, although the fact that he was first in line for past champion’s provisionals guaranteed him a spot in at least the first five races.

He didn’t have to use a single one of them, however, and stayed solidly in the top 10 in driver standings all the way up to the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on May 16.

That night, with fire in the belly and a racecar he drove the wheels off of, Stewart won his first race -- but most certainly not his last -- as a driver/owner and took home a check for $1 million. It was his first all-star race win in 10 tries.

Stewart made a gutsy choice at what a lot of people might have considered the very pinnacle of his career. At a time when most of us would have stayed put, he made a move. At a point when most of us would have played the safe bet, he took a gamble.

Maybe Tony Stewart really isn’t afraid of anything. In his shoes, would you be?

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.