Smoke and Mirrors

The Tiger in Winter?

The Tiger in Winter?

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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.

Monte Dutton

Monte Dutton

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.

Bobby Allison stayed active right up to serious head injuries cut short his remarkable career.

Bobby Allison stayed active right up to serious head injuries cut short his remarkable career.

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.

As luck would have it, the last time I chatted with Tony Stewart, someone -- Jerry Jordan, I think -- took a picture of it.

As luck would have it, the last time I chatted with Tony Stewart, someone — Jerry Jordan, I think — took a picture of it.

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.


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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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12 Responses to Smoke and Mirrors

  1. Jed Summers says:

    Thanks for this personal insight Monte. I’ll always be pulling for Smoke.

  2. Wayne says:

    Just my gut feeling, but I think in that sprint car death he let his anger get the best of him, tried to intimidate that kid by buzzing him . Little did he know how close he was, it all went wrong, and it is a huge burden, knowing that a death occurred and he was involved.

  3. jason flores says:

    Having been a huge Stewart fan from back before he won the triple crown it is just sad to see him run the way he does now. I believe he should just retire and concentrate on the ownership side of things. Your right he’s lost something, be it the Kevin Ward incident or the injuries, I don’t think he can get it back. Sorry to see a great driver and person go out like this.

  4. dawg says:

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite Kristofferson songs.

    To Beat the Devil.

    I think right now the Devil is winning, & like you I think he lost the thing that kept him grounded. When he gave up the racing he loved.

    Taking all the factors into consideration. I’d put his chances at 50/50 at best.


  5. Monte says:

    Thanks for sharing that. When I’m writing, lines of Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall and Gram Parsons probably come to mind more than anyone else. And Lucinda Williams, maybe.

  6. Ro Cowan says:

    I think that you are correct in that Tony is haunted by the tragedy. But I think a lot of that comes from the fact that he has never actually put it on the table and put it behind him. Should he? Not publicly NO! It’s the past and it needs to stay there. There is no reason to excite the vultures with fresh blood. However, when he walked away from his heart and his roots he lost both. There is a huge difference in owning the track, the team and the series and breathing in the exhaust and pulling the tear-off to see through the dirt.

    Tony’s talents are still there. But he sits quietly behind the PR releases and doesn’t speak for himself. He has surprisingly let people start walking on him. Instead of confronting an issue he now hides and runs. Tony Stewart has never been a runner or a hider.

    My Daddy use to say, “That boy would take on Godzilla and never blink. He would probably win the fight in the end.” I think (or at least I hope) that is what we are seeing. Tony is taking on Godzilla and it looks strangely like the man in his mirror. Will he win? Yeah in the end he will.

    I believe that. After 30 years I still believe in him. I guess I always will. But I also know that it will take him getting mad enough to stand up and remember he is an original member of team “Bring It”.

    The struggle is hard to watch. I want to reach out to him and remind him of that kid with bad teeth and the mullet who pulled in to our track in a midget with barely enough money in his pocket to make the gate. He was facing long odds that he would make it. But he wouldn’t give up. He drove like a bat out of hell and found the way around and to the front.

    I believe he will again. I think like it did the first time it will begin when he returns to dirt. When he comes back where he started and he begins the journey back there he will begin the journey back on the asphalt as well.


  7. Diann Smith says:

    I truly believe Tony has to beat the ghost by getting back on the dirt track. I think we need to make peace with the demons in our life so we can get back to who we are and be able to fully enjoy and be passionate about life. Tony breaths dirt track, he has as much said this himself. I will support him through it all.

  8. russ says:

    Sadly we don’t get better with age. Experience will cover up a lot of things, but not forever.

  9. Tim S. says:

    I have been a fan since Stewart barnstormed into my local track in the summer of 1998. Racing anything and everything has always been a part of Stewart’s make-up. Many stars are good drivers, but they don’t live to race, so Cup is plenty for them. One of Mr. Dutton’s earliest blogs referenced Harry Gant and Bobby Allison. They never slowed down until they had to, pretty much. I think Allison even raced something once after his accident. I believe in Monte’s theory. Who knows how long Allison would’ve raced were it not for Pocono?

    As strong as his team is, I believe Stewart would find results in Cup again if he could just find a way to climb back into something besides a Cup car. Sure he’s not 22 anymore, but I just don’t think that’s a consideration in Stewart’s case.

  10. Andy says:

    If Tony gives up racing every Sunday it will be so he can run Sprint Cars and Modifieds every Saturday. And I won’t be surprised if he puts up a 50% stake in a Kurt Busch run for the 100th Indy 500.

  11. Troy says:

    I think Tony’s slump is a product of a lot of things, not one thing. And what is stinging him the most right now (and he alludes to it by taking the blame) is a lack of testing. He can’t either test himself to get a feel or have a test driver assure him the car is good. He has shown glimpses of himself this season, but he can’t seem to put a race together. Tony’s legendary bravery, skill and car control cannot be displayed when he doesn’t have confidence in the car. I am quite sure if Tony could take his car to a track and spend a day with it, he would figure it out. Tony has figured out every race car known to man, he can figure out this car. He just needs time.

  12. Jeff Knotts says:

    Great read Monte as always. I think the main problem is Chad Johnston, even though Tony has defended him. I never understood the hiring of Chad Johnston. His ignorant pit calls is what put Truex in the position he was in going into Richmond when MWR pulled all the shenigans trying to get Truex in the chase. He has no clue how to call a race or make in race adjustments. Jeff Knotts, Wadesboro NC

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