While You Were Away Matt Mclaughlin


So, all right, you didn’t go anywhere. I did. I was on vacation for a week down the Jersey shore alternately cursing the unseasonable heat even by August standards and praising the relief available from said heat in pre-packaged twelve-ounce doses. Curiously the NASCAR world kept right on spinning even while I was away urging others to buy a copy of the “The Rising” with a Moonie-like zeal. Here’s some of my comments on what transpired while I was away.

Tony The Time Bomb- Perhaps it’s a good thing that I was away when Tony Stewart decided to go Mike Tyson on that photographer from the Star. In my naivete I initially assumed that Stewart had done something wrong, perhaps even criminal, but I’ve found out since it is the evil vile bottom-feeding media that is responsible, not Mr. Congeniality.

Why didn’t the press, one photographer in particular, just leave Tony alone after the race?, some of his disgruntled fans want to know. Of course those are the same fans who’d have been emailing writers demanding to know why Stewart all of a sudden slipped from second to 12th in the final laps of the Brickyard. They’d probably have also accused writers of having a pro-Elliott bias for covering the story that Bill had won the race without reporting on the truly big story, that Tony Stewart had finished 12th. Some fan has apparently broken into the NASCAR media tree-house and rifled through our ultra-secret oath contained in a five subject Mead notebook which clearly states: Rule 20-AH- No media professional shall comment on, acknowledge or photograph Tony Stewart without slanting the coverage to be overwhelmingly negative. Lowes pays us a lot of money, arranges call-girls for us, and gives us ultra-exotic sports cars to make Home Depot’s spokesperson look bad.

Stewart also has an excuse. He’s claustrophobic. He was misquoted. He’s intensely driven to win, while the other 42 drivers are presumably just out there to drive in circles, marvel at Tony’s talent, and hope they score a top 10 finish every now and again so the big checks keep coming. Stewart, he is fond of reminding the imbeciles in the media, signed up to be a race car driver, but does not accept the publicity aspects that go with the job. Wouldn’t it be nice if life worked that way? I mean I’d like to get paid as a writer without having to bother with columns. I’d like to go to the local Ford dealer and drive off in a black ’03 Mustang Cobra without having to pay for it.

Honestly, it amazes me that the Home Depot folks put up with this nonsense. If Stewart’s attitude represents their corporate culture a reasonable consumer would be afraid to enter the chainsaw aisle for fear he’d ask an employee a stupid question and be dismembered.

OK, that’s harsh. But I was pulling for Tony. After last year’s bombastic antics, Stewart’s handlers adopted a strategy that could be summed up best as “If you’re going to say mean things about me, I’m not going to talk to you at all.” That actually worked for awhile. So the handlers decided to trot out their “kinder gentler” Tony Stewart, showing him at home with his roommates, his devotion to disadvantaged kids, and even his “day late, dollar short” support of head and neck restraints. But those handlers gave Stewart too much leash and he’s done it again. One can imagine a frantic room full of Joe Gibbs and Home Depot employees calling Tony to task Monday. “How are we going to handle this?” one wails, and whoever is in charge writes the word “contrite!” on the blackboard in big bold letters. After all “Deny” and “Defiant” didn’t work. Stewart scratches at the three days of growth on his chin and asks to have someone define the term “contrite” for him. The handlers choose the fine words and program Stewart to parrot them. The photographer is now “Mr.” Someone. He accepts full responsibility and reaches the difficult conclusion that punching people is bad. Stewart will take anger management classes. Isn’t that like a defendant facing his fifth DUI conviction telling a judge, “I have a problem with booze and I’m going to seek treatment”? Would that judge than decide “Well there’s no need to suspend this guy’s license, because he admits there’s a problem and he’s going to correct it.”

To those who condone Stewart’s actions, let me ask you a hypothetical question. Let’s say there’s a reporter assigned to cover the Brickyard. He hasn’t written a high profile column in awhile, there’s rumors that he’s going to be replaced, and the job market is bad right now, so he’s under a lot of pressure. His editor tells that reporter that he wants a column that evening complete with quotes from every driver in the top ten in points concerning their chances at winning the 2002 Winston Cup championship. So Ricky Reporter gets his quotes from Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and the rest, but when he approaches Tony Stewart, Tony tells him he hasn’t got time to talk. So the frustrated reporter hauls off and punches Stewart in the chest. Would that be all right? Would it be appropriate to fine that reporter a half day’s pay and put him on probation until the end of the year? Or to take another instance, would you Stewart fans feel the same if your least favorite driver, Jeff or Robby Gordon say, hauled off and hit a media member this weekend?

Yeah, I know, it’s the entire media’s fault and now I’m a bad guy too. Here’s a wakeup call to fans who believe that’s the case. There is no media personality, not on the Internet, not in print, not even on TV, that is capable of destroying Tony Stewart. There is no sentence that can be written, no evidence cited, or film broadcast so powerful that it would cause Stewart’s legions of loyal fans to suddenly abandon him and think to themselves “yeah, it really is Tony’s fault after all.” There is one person in this whole mess with the power to destroy Tony Stewart and that’s Tony Stewart. To the great delight of the growing number of fans who dislike him, Stewart seems hell-bent on self-destruction too.

28-gate- Only in Winston Cup could a big story of the weekend be what someone didn’t say. Ricky Rudd was expected to announce at the Brickyard he was leaving Robert Yates Racing and signing on with Chip Ganassi. Rumors have it Texaco will accompany Rudd when he leaves. And as much as anyone knows the truth about what’s going on some people are reporting the sticking point is Texaco would like to have the number “28” on their car next year, the same number that’s been on the car they sponsored all these years. Some folks have commented to me that they feel Texaco has done enough for Yates over the years he ought to accommodate that request.

Not so fast. In my mind, and those of many other fans, the 28 team will always and forever be “Davey Allison’s team.” Davey and Robert were great friends in addition to their owner-driver relationship. Back in the dark days after Davey’s untimely death, Yates stated he wanted with all his heart to win a championship with the 28 team in Davey’s memory. While Yates won a championship with the 88 team, to date that vow has been unfulfilled for the 28 bunch.

What’s more, no one is saying just how such a number transfer would work. Would Ganassi expect the owner points that the 28 team accumulates this year to become his next year as well to help ensure his new team had a provisional available in the first four races of the season? (One might recall that Chip’s new 41 team failed to make the Daytona 500 earlier this year.) Someone could make a valid argument that Rudd is earning those points for Yates, and if it comes down to it he’s more worthy of earning a spot in the race than some other new driver for his old team, but NASCAR history is rife with examples of drivers sent home from races by the team they drove for the previous year. I’d prefer Yates held onto the number “28.” Texaco can pick some other number that plays an important part in their corporate culture. For instance they could number the car to match the number of their service stations in New Jersey staffed by employees familiar enough with the English language to give directions to the nearest interstate. No, that won’t work. Buckshot Racing still holds rights to car number “00”.

Spencer versus Busch- Hey, from where I sat it looked like Spencer parked Busch, pure and simple, and that’s pretty frightening to consider when the cars are traveling that fast. But I’m not worried about it. Prior to practice at Watkins Glen Jimmy and Kurt have been invited to a private meeting in the NASCAR hauler to work out their differences. I mean that will work, right? Look at how NASCAR’s decision to discipline Tony Stewart last year led to his change of heart.

More Media Drivel- I used to include the length of Jeff Gordon’s winless drought in my Race Recaps but I stopped doing so because I got tired of letter’s from Gordon’s fans demanding to know why I didn’t list the length of other drivers’ droughts as well. I intended no offense. Gordon’s failure to win is indeed a notable story. Why? Let’s just say if the sun failed to rise for the next seven days even us dimwitted journalists would eventually decide something strange was going on.

As he heads to Watkins Glen, where Gordon must be considered a favorite to win, the streak stands at 29 races. Out of fairness, I should point out that among drivers who won races last year but haven’t scored a victory yet this year, Rusty Wallace’s winless drought is at 47 races, Bobby Hamilton’s stands at 48 and Elliott Sadler hasn’t won in 51 consecutive events. Wallace fan’s need not despair. Fellow former Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte is winless in 117 consecutive starts. Texas Terry fans don’t get angry with me because I hasten to add Ken Schrader hasn’t scored a victory in 360 Cup events. But the record amongst active drivers who have won a race during their careers for most starts without a victory goes to Brett Bodine at 383.

NASCAR announced this week that the Chevy’s and Pontiac’s will be allowed to run their front air dams yanked out further in an attempt to give the cars more downforce at Michigan next weekend. I prefer it when NASCAR changes the front spoilers rather than the rear spoiler height. That way I can just right “another dam rule change.”

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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