Clinton, S.C., Sunday, June 2, 2013, 7:06 p.m.
At last, Stewart-Haas Racing answered the wake-up call, and when it rang, Tony Stewart bounced right up. He could have been excused for groping desperately for the “snooze button” and rolling back over.
Hell, when Tony Stewart climbed out of his No. 14 Chevy, he even looked like he’d shaved.
It’s impossible to predict when Stewart will win a race. It doesn’t matter where he qualifies. It doesn’t matter how he’s running for, oh, three quarters of the race. Come to think of it, based on the 2011 season, it’s impossible to predict when Stewart will win the Sprint Cup championship.
He is the most interesting man in … NASCAR.
Stewart can be funny or fierce. He can be belligerent or bashful. Angry or indifferent. Boorish or boring. Snappy or snippy. Profane or Profound. To borrow the words of Kris Kristofferson, “he’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.”
In the case of Sunday at Dover International Speedway, Stewart’s wrong direction was languishing outside the top 10 for most of the race, and home was the Monster Mile’s victory lane.
When the race started, the only driver targeting Stewart was Denny Hamlin, because Hamlin, who sat out a while due to injury, has to reach the top 20 in points over the next 14 races (13 now), and Stewart was occupying 20th place. Now Stewart has something, a victory, that Hamlin will need more and more every week this summer.
If Jimmie Johnson hadn’t gotten greedy – by jumping a late restart even though he was driving what was obviously the fastest car – the story of Stewart on Sunday would have been a sidebar, but that’s the magic of Stewart’s unpredictability. Give the man a shot, and he will pounce.
With Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports braintrust trying to come up with a coherent explanation for giving the race away, Stewart tracked down Juan Pablo Montoya – yes, the Montoya who still has never won on an oval – and won at Dover for the first time since 2000.
It was a splendid pastime, even on TV. It was even splendid to wait around at the house for the post-race transcripts to arrive in the email bin. I knew Stewart would banter, quip and pontificate.
On the still struggling three-car team he co-owns: “… it does make you have to, you have to play cheerleader. I like looking at cheerleaders. I think they’re hot. I’m not much of one, but that’s my role.”
On his embattled crew chief, Steve Addington, and rumors surrounding his team: “It doesn’t calm me down because it ticks me off that I’ve got to sit here and go through this crap because of you guys.”
(Many times when I covered NASCAR, I would hear drivers claim that “we” wrote all these stories about crew chiefs allegedly being fired or a driver washed up, and I often wanted to ask, “Who wrote that?” because I thought “we” often got blamed for stories that the driver “heard everybody wrote.”)
The above was only the opening salvo in a fairly typical Stewart rant, but when it was over, his eyes probably twinkled again – I was in South Carolina so I can’t say – and he probably flashed that boyish grin, and his voice probably went down about an octave when he said, “It was going really good until I got to that …
When a media member broached another subject with “before you get upset,” Stewart quickly said, “I’ll try to cheer up for you.”
No one in NASCAR is better at pissing people off. No one is better at snake charming (from Stewart’s perspective, a serpent is an apt metaphor for the media). In short, no one is more likable, and no one is more dislikable. He’s crazy but in a good way.
Me? I’ve always liked him. He always gave me something to write about. Fans pull for drivers. Writers pull for stories.