Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sorry Tony, But It IS Your Job

Tony Stewart doesn’t like NASCAR’s co-called “phantom cautions.”

His comments on last night’s edition of Tony Stewart Live made that crystal clear. It’s an interesting topic of conversation, to say the least, but I’ll leave the debate over NASCAR’s alleged fabrication of debris cautions for another day. I’ll even ignore his remarks comparing NASCAR to professional wrestling as events that are “for the most part, staged.”

My thoughts today are on Stewart’s contention that he was within his rights not to attend Saturday night’s post-race press conference at Phoenix International Raceway, simply because his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t require it.

For the record, I like Tony Stewart. I think he’s a good guy, and one of the most talented racers ever to turn a wheel, in NASCAR or anywhere else. I think he’s honest to a fault, heartfelt in his opinions, and one of the few drivers willing to ruffle a few feathers by saying what he thinks. I enjoy talking to the guy, and probably cut him as much “slack” as any member of the media, simply because I know he’s not the self-centered megalomaniac he sometimes comes off as being.

This time around, though, he’s wrong. And I’ll tell you why.

In the hours leading up to each race, Stewart attends a weekly driver’s meeting. His attendance is mandatory; not because it says so in his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, but because NASCAR requires it.

Prior to the start, Stewart takes part in driver introductions, not because his JGR contract requires it, but because NASCAR does.

When he climbs into his Home Depot Chevrolet, he does so wearing a HANS device; a piece of apparatus he openly despises. He does so, not because his contract requires it, but because it’s mandated by NASCAR.

And if he is unfortunate enough to crash during the race, he climbs into a waiting ambulance and is transported to the Infield Care Center for a checkup; not because it is required in his contract, but because he is required to do so by NASCAR.

Stewart does all these things without question or complaint, knowing them to be part and parcel of his job as a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver. He doesn’t do them 95% of the time, he does them every single week, because he knows he has to.

Why, then, is appearing before the media so different?

Truth be told, it’s not.

As distasteful as it may be to answer an endless stream of silly questions immediately after the latest in a series of galling, “close-but-no-cigar” performances on the racetrack, it’s part of Tony’s job. Stewart and his fellow drivers are free to pull up a seat in the Media Center and spit out tired clichés about their hard-working team and supportive sponsors if they like, or even to decline comment on any question they don’t feel like answering. They are not, however, allowed to ditch the press conference entirely.

It’s as simple as that.

Denny Hamlin also had a frustrating night Saturday, dominating much of the race before a pit road speeding violation dropped him to the back of the pack and doomed him to a third-place finish. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer, J.J. Yeley and Martin Truex, Jr. all saw their races ruined by the evening’s final caution. All were bitterly disappointed, but all honored their commitment by speaking to the media about it afterward.

I understand Tony’s frustration with “phantom cautions.” I spend a minimum of 20 hours each week talking with race fans around the country, and it’s a concern of theirs, as well. Maybe it’s time we had this debate, allowing NASCAR to make its case, while receiving feedback from a considerable number of disgruntled fans and competitors.

But let’s not lose track of the fact that the yellow flag that cost Stewart his lead Saturday night was no “phantom.” It flew when Dave Blaney pounded the wall in Turn Four and sat broadside in the power lane. Even then, Stewart was able to pass Jeff Gordon on the ensuing restart, only to be overtaken a few laps later by Gordon.

Did NASCAR screw Tony Stewart out of a win Saturday? Absolutely not. But even if they did, it’s not too much to ask that he fulfill his duties and talk about it afterward.

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