Where there’s Smoke, there used to be fire.
“Smoke” is the non de plume of Tony Stewart, one-time NASCAR firebrand and trouble-magnet who wasn’t happy unless he was unhappy.
Tony was the sport’s most volatile driver, as famous for his temper as for his talent. He constantly feuded with NASCAR officials, the media, fans and even his tire company. He thrived on controversy.
Suddenly Stewart has cooled off. In more ways than one.
Tony the Tiger has become a pussycat, and (coincidentally?) he’s also stopped winning.
He is 0-13 in Cup competition this season and 11th in the standings after an early wipeout last Sunday at Dover.
Tony was the victim of a couple of crash dummies. The Old Tony would have exploded. The New Tony just shrugged and walked away.
I miss the Old Tony. Granted, NASCAR’s resident air bag could sometimes be Bobby Knightish in a press conference with his sarcasm and snide remarks, but he kept things interesting.
Stewart was often misunderstood. Darrell Waltrip used to spar with the press, but he did it with wit, not sarcasm. Tony lacks Waltrip’s knack for clever repartee and that sometimes caused him problems.
Now he’s undergone a personality makeover: Maybe he’s matured. Maybe all those anger-management classes finally sank in.
He’s no longer the most temperamental racer in NASCAR and he’s not even the most volatile at Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s a distant third.
Teammate Kyle Busch has assumed the mantle of racing’s new Bad Boy, and close behind is baby-faced Denny Hamlin, who drives like Dirty Harry.
Is there a connection between the kinder, gentler Tony Stewart and the suddenly-losing Tony Stewart? Does he need road range and a chip on his shoulder to perform?
Don Quixote needed windmills to charge; ditto Stewart. Without them, the one-time terror of the track has become just another Sunday driver.
Some theorize that that Stewart has been distracted by a possible team/career move, perhaps contemplating becoming an owner/driver.
Maybe so, but considering his former hard-driving ways it’s hard to imagine that a mere business decision could distract the two-time champion from racing.
But there’s no denying that he doesn’t chew nails the way he used to. The fire in his belly seems to have gone out, and the question is, is it extinguished forever?
Tony the Tiger has been tamed, a stunning metamorphosis – and an example of how, in his line of work, nice guys finish last.
BUSY WEEKEND FOR BUSCH: Kyle Busch is not only the hottest driver in NASCAR, this weekend he’ll be the busiest.
Busch, who has four Sprint Cup wins, four Nationwide wins and two Craftsman Truck Series wins, plans to make NASCAR history by racing in all three series on three separate tracks.
He is entered in Friday’s truck race in Texas, Saturday’s Nationwide race at Nashville Superspeedway and Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono.
“It’s all about racing,” said Busch, whose combination of talent and temperament have made him the sport’s most exciting driver. “It never gets old, especially when I’m having the kind of success I’m having right now.”
Busch is coming off a Cup victory at Dover, his fourth in 13 races, and he is solidly on top of the championship standings.
Busch is second in the Nationwide standings behind Clint Bowyer, and 16th in the truck standings after skipping two races.
Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 300 is the second Nationwide stop at the Superspeedway this year. Scott Wimmer won the March race. Tickets are available at the gate or by calling 1-866-RACE-TIX.
Larry Woody is a veteran sportswriter in Nashville and has covered auto racing for almost four decades.