Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, July 17, 2015, 2:33 p.m.
Tony Stewart and I go way back. I wrote a book about him years ago, early in his career, but I haven’t talked to him since 2012, and his troubles are hard to analyze from afar. I read the transcript of a media conference from a few days ago, and it made me sad.
It seems impossible that Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion, is struggling so, and it seems just as unlikely that he doesn’t seem to know what’s wrong. He doesn’t blame his crew chief, Chad Johnston. Nor does he blame his crew. He blames himself. He takes it like a man.
The new “package” in place this year has mystified Stewart. Someone asked him how much he has to “change.”
Change. Tony Stewart. What a concept.
“Honestly, I don’t know that because I haven’t figured it out,” Stewart said. “It’s a scenario that, when you drive for so long, you’re used to one thing, I mean, coming into this year, and taking the amount of horsepower they took out was a pretty radical change for the Cup Series.
“I think it was more the horsepower reduction than it was anything [else] that I feel like has hurt me this year. I’ve grown up driving high-horsepower cars, high power-to-weight-ratio cars. This is what I’m used to feeling.”
It doesn’t just mystify Stewart. It mystifies me. Stewart was, and still is, the great throwback to the drivers of an earlier generation — A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue, and others — who could climb into anything with four wheels and win with it. He was the last of the red-hot racers, a champion in both IndyCars and NASCAR, not to mention the best midget racer I have ever seen.
How could Tony Stewart struggle this long in anything?
It makes me think of my response many years ago when Stewart told me he had purchased a team of greyhounds.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You love racing so much that they don’t even have to have wheels on them?”
I also want to declare that I’m not counting him out. I’d never count out Stewart. I’ve seen him perform too many amazing feats of driving virtuosity. His 2011 Chase remains the most amazing performance over a 10-race span I have ever seen.
Here’s what I have concluded. Citing a horsepower reduction of 125 just doesn’t account for Stewart’s woes. It would explain much more for those less talented.
Stewart may be the ultimate example of what I’ve believed for two decades. I’ve written it. Few others have accepted it because, in my opinion, they were in denial. The numbers are there.
The drivers who maintain their skills well into their forties are those who remain active. The popular notion is that young drivers need the seat time, and perhaps those who haven’t fully honed their skills do, but the decline of almost every NASCAR star has coincided with cutting back on the schedule and competing only in Cup. The drivers who kept on winning were those who were willing to climb into a race car any time a nearby short track opened its gates on a Thursday night when the engines were quiet at the big one.
Being active was the reason Stewart stayed sharp. What’s more, it was even more important for Stewart than most others because he loved it so much, running dirt modifieds and winged sprint cars, showing up unannounced and racing with the local heroes.
Then he took two terrible blows, one injuring him physically and the other emotionally. In 2013, Stewart suffered a horrible leg injury, and, in 2014, he was involved in an accident in which a young driver, Kevin Ward Jr., lost his life.
He missed a lot of time, and his skills dissipated. The older he gets, the harder they are to regain. I suspect he remains haunted by Ward’s death.
Another aspect of Tony Stewart’s personality is that, beneath the bluster, he is quite sensitive. He is a man who can be an ogre, and the reason is that it hides his rich humanity, and, like many athletes, he sees it as a sign of weakness.
I’m afraid his valor has been beaten down into a hollow shell. When I hear him speak, he seems muffled and restrained to my distant ears.
I can’t wait to see him conquer his demons and win again. I don’t know if he will. For the first time, I doubt his capacity to recover.
But, as noted already, I haven’t counted him out. I think he’s got a last hurrah in him, and I wish I could be there to see it. I’ve seldom wanted to be wrong as much as now.
Read my thoughts about writing, my short stories, and my book reviews at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and consider buying my books, most of which can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1