Wednesday, March 18, 2015

COMMENTARY: Smoke Fans, Step Away From The Ledge

Tony Stewart fans, step away from the ledge. It’s too soon to jump.

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion started his 2015 season on a decidedly low note, crashing out of the Daytona 500 en route to a 42-place finish. Things improved only marginally the following week, with a 30th-place showing at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was 33rd at Las Vegas Motorsport Speedway two weeks ago and 39th Sunday (wrecked again) in Phoenix.

That’s a lousy start, no matter how you slice it. And for some Stewart fans, the time has apparently come to begin jumping off the bandwagon.

They point to Smoke’s age – 43 – as a sign that his best competitive days may be behind him. They point to the departure of crew chief Darian Grubb – and before him, Greg Zipadelli – as contributing factors in Stewart’s fall from grace. They say he’s got “too much on his plate,” running the Eldora Speedway dirt track and the recently acquired All-Star Sprint Series. They blame the compound-fractured leg he suffered in a Sprint Car spill two summers back, and of course, they point to the on-track tragedy that took the life of driver Kevin Ward, Jr. as proof that Stewart may never again be the driver he once was.

At the risk of quelling the panic, here are a few simple facts.

For the record, Stewart and his Sprint Cup brethren have had just three races to acclimate themselves to NASCAR’s new lower-horsepower, reduced-downforce rules package. Some drivers have adapted well to those changes, while others have not. The sanctioning body’s newly announced ban on independent testing has made it especially tough on those who have not.

With testing restricted, struggling teams like Stewart’s need more time to diagnose and cure their on-track ills. And despite all the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth in recent days, three weeks does not qualify as “more time.”

Repeat after me. It is far too early to begin throwing dirt on Tony Stewart’s grave.

Two years ago, under NASCAR’s previous championship format, a start like Stewart’s would have been extremely difficult to overcome. Under the current Chase system, however, a driver can choke on his own vomit for 25 consecutive weeks, then salvage the season and earn a berth in the championship Chase with a single win in Race 26 at Richmond.

Is there cause for concern for Tony Stewart fans right now? You bet there is.

At both Daytona and Phoenix, the former Sprint Cup Series champion was eliminated in crashes of his own creation. In Atlanta and Las Vegas, he finished multiple laps in arrears, with no wrecks, mechanical failures or pit-road miscues to blame.

His cars were simply, painfully, horribly slow. And worse, he and his team seemed to have little idea how to fix them. That’s a problem, but it’s not insurmountable.

All it takes is time and patience, something fans seem to have little of these days.

In today’s instant gratification society, we are no longer willing to wait for success. We want what we want, and we want it now. We cook our meals in microwave ovens, tapping our toes in annoyance at a recipe that requires an investment of more than 45 seconds. We eat over the sink, with no time to set the table or wash the dishes. We watch television in 10-second increments, mashing the remote control and hurtling wildly thorough all 300 channels, unable to commit to anything, lest we miss something more exciting happening just a few clicks away.

Today’s sports fan has a t-shirt in his closet for every Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup and NBA champion from the last 15 years. His loyalty to those teams lasted less than a week, and required an investment no more emotional than a trip to WalMart. He roots for whichever team is hot at the moment, and as a result, he truly roots for no one at all.

That fan makes a lot of noise in the local watering hole on Super Bowl Sunday, but that variety of drive-by fandom has no meaningful payoff.

There are guys who marry their High School sweetheart and remain faithful – through thick and thin, good times and bad – for 50 years. There are also guys who attend their High School Reunion in a rented Corvette, with a hooker on each arm.

One of those guys is the real deal. The other is paper-thin.

As difficult as it may be these days, Stewart fans must keep the faith. Stewart and crew chief Chad Johnston have the full effort and resources of both Stewart Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports behind them. Some of the smartest people in the sport work inside those walls, and they’ll get things figured out, soon enough.

It is highly unlikely that Stewart has forgotten how to drive a race car in the last few months, and he insists that he no longer struggles with the baggage – both physical and emotional – acquired in a difficult last two seasons.

He says he’s going to be fine, and you should believe him.

Hang in there, Smoke fans. It may not be easy at present, but it’ll be worth it in the end.


  1. I love Smoke. He is one of the greatest ever. But after a serious injury then the Kevin Ward Jr tragedy, how can I dismiss the possibility that Smoke is more tentative/less aggressive? He says he is fine but what else is he going to say? Anything but that and that leads to getting out of the car. He may not even be aware of it being an issue. Let's face it: he won 3 championships by being one of the most aggressive drivers out there. It seems crazy to think that those two incidents haven't affected him and how he drives. I hope we get Smoke back the way he used to be, and I will always be loyal to him. But wondering if the man has human emotions that have affected him is not being disloyal, its being concerned. I'm not sure why every single reason except that has been used as a reason for his issues. Maybe because its easier to fix a car than a mind?

    1. Anonymous10:05 PM

      Amen, Mark... I, too, have thought these same things.. a driver even of Tony's caliber cannot somehow be affected by what has happened in his life... God be with him, I so hope he can recover... mentally and emotionally. As you said, he truly is one of the greatest ever...

    2. Mark...I agree to a point. "It seems crazy to think that those two incidents haven't affected him and how he drives" and "But wondering if the man has human emotions that have affected him is not being disloyal, its being concerned" are both 100% correct. He's human. He reads the fan, fair-weather fan, and "non-fan" feedback on Twitter and all the rest of social media out there. He reads the bashing, the rants, the ridicule, and all the hate comments as well as the true loyal fan feedback that we supply that WILL stick by him through thick and thin, bad or good. Yes, aggression, skill, and FOCUS are what got him where he is today and I believe it will be those three traits that will get him a future win. I'm not his counselor or psychologist etc., but DO have education in that specific area. I personally feel that he needs to face those demons head-on and get his butt back into a Sprint car and run the shit out of it until those demons are placed way back in the recesses of his mind, where they belong, NOT in the fore-front. BUT, who am I? Just a long-time, lifer fan.

    3. Even if Smoke is more tentative and less aggressive than the past, he still has a lot more of that in him than most of the drivers out there. Not worried. He was running well - in the top 10 - at Phoenix before the crash. He'll be back.

    4. Mark, you nailed the thoughts of a lot of Smoke fans. He's taken a lot lately, and it'd be foolish to think it wouldn't affect him.

      Tony's still got good years and wins left in him, but championships are another story. Dale Sr. won his last at age 43, and he was the best. But like Dale, Tony still has to climb the Daytona 500 mountain. And like Dale, I think Smoke will eventually throw everything at it, to get the one race left he wants on his legacy.

    5. J-puchek@yahoo.com9:46 PM

      been behind Smoke for 14 years, aint about to change anything over a slow start.

  2. Anonymous7:39 PM

    Thank you Dave Moody for this great article. Tony is a true racer and he will return to true form and then we will see all the bandwagon fans come running home.

  3. I will always be a fan of Tony Stewart. I will and have been a fan through the good the bad and the ugly. I will be there win lose or draw. He is and will always be "SMOKE" I'll scream and shout at a race or on TV cheering him on as long as he is driving a race car.who am I? I am a Tony Stewart fan and he is my driver

  4. sherri8:31 PM

    I believe tony is on the rise due to a stellar performance up until the wreck in phoenix this past weekend. Yes he was mad at himself for not easing off the gas a little to avoid getting loose and wrecking but that is the best by far so far since last year the highest he has been in the race being in 9th place. I think they are starting to figure out how to set the car up for his drivin style now he just has to punch his ticket for a better finish. he knows what needs to happen and im sure after last weekend he knows what to do and not what to do. tony has this he just needs to do it and shut the door on stupid people! lol

  5. Anonymous9:01 PM

    I love Smoke, and I will never give up on him. I have faith that he will come around. I am a fan for life, not just in the good times, but in the bad times too. I am from the old school. You don't throw something away because it is broken, you fix it.

  6. Wendy W9:48 PM

    Go Tony Go!! Great article!

  7. Linda Ramos10:08 PM

    Adore Tony have since 1999. He is the reason I started watching NASCAR and he is the reason I stay. He is the best driver and yes these new rules I think have many perplexed. Tony will Come back I have no doubt. He is a good man who helps so many in different ways . My bucket list is to get too a live NASCAR Race to see Tony race and to get to meet him and shake his hand and tell him how wonderful I think he is on so many levels. To have my picture made with him. I am 65 low income but I hold out hope that something will work out for the #1 on my bucket list and see and meet my #14 win or lose to me he is the best there is . I will never back up from supporting him . I think his mind is fine it is the car that needs fixed !

  8. I have to agree Dave... It's too early to panic.

  9. Anonymous2:37 AM

    Hey Smoke fans..yes you Mr. Moody..we can wax all we want about the glory days to come..they may, they may not. The past few years has show a different reality. One can say his nasty injury to his leg, or one can say his nasty involvement with a death (...grand jury cleared him, but did he clear himself?). It ways on you and it looks like it is a heavy weight. I can't help but think of Chuck Knoblock every time I see article on Tony...

  10. Anonymous9:49 AM

    Fact: Tony's teammate Kevin Harvick is the quite possibly the hottest athlete in sports, period. Fact: his other teammate Kurt Busch hops into the new Cup car for the first time this year and finishes 5th. Fact: Tony even tried Harvick's setup and still couldn't find any semblance of speed.

    I remember an interview with DW where he talked about the waning days of his career. He changed everything but the kitchen sink with no results and eventually he realized the common denominator was the driver. It happens.

    Tony Stewart will not win this year. Tony Stewart will be lucky to finish a race on the lead lap this year. With so much young talent in the lower ranks begging for a chance to shine it's time for Tony to take off the firesuit and put on the owner's business suit.

    Sorry Smoke fans... the truth often hurts.

  11. Anonymous12:30 PM

    Tony needs to get in a 410 Winged Sprint Car on the clay and let it all hang out. No media no cameras just Methanol and Clay! Come on SMOKE!

  12. Anonymous1:18 PM

    Sure, Tony is off to a horrible start but by no means is he the only one. Where are all the pundits who said Carl Edward's move to Gibbs would make him an instant shoe-in for the championship? Other than the Penske Fords the rest of blue oval teams need a road map to find the first turn. It seems like Toyota hasn't won a race since they stopped selling the Celica.

    Dave, I'm sure you know and I know that the older you get the longer it takes to adapt to change. With the new rules package this year the cars are completely different creatures than they were last year. Tony will figure it out and if you don't think so then perhaps the Bowling Channel is more your speed.

  13. I have been a Smoke fan from Indy cars till now, I have never given up on him and I won't stop now. I will be a smoke fan no matter what he decides to do!

  14. I believe a good deal of Tony's problem is the fact that he is so overweight. If they claim out there that NASCAR drivers are athletes, then Stewart is several laps down to the competition before the races even begin. Anyone remember how A.J. Foyt went out? Every year his waistline got thicker, he ran further in the back of the pack.