Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Holy Smoke! Stewart's Back All must be right with the world. Tony Stewart is back in victory lane. It matters not that NASCAR officials at Talladega had to give Smoke an escort with a ruling against rookie...
Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Holy Smoke! Stewart's Back
All must be right with the world. Tony Stewart is back in victory lane.
It matters not that NASCAR officials at Talladega had to give Smoke an escort with a ruling against rookie Regan Smith's below the yellow belt move on the last lap.
Nor does it matter there were two Big Ones that took out most of the competition.
After a season of bad luck, bad tempers at Joe Gibbs Racing and bad mid-race adjustments, Stewart has re-established his tenure as one of the best all-around drivers in the business.
That's what it takes with the Car of Tomorrow, a vehicle that has kept six of last year's 16 winners out of victory lane this year, including Jeff Gordon. And, Smith's brief moment under the checkers at Talladega is as close we have come to having a new, first-time winner this year.
"A lot of people don't like me here," said a smiling Stewart shortly after climbing out of his Toyota, another sure sign of NASCAR stardom, where the emphasis is on personality and competition, not on things technical.
On the personality side, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards (despite his self-described idiotic goof to bring out the second and decisive Big One) and Kyle Busch have scored well this year with their victories.
By contrast, other big stars have won races this year on strategic maneuvers, such as Kasey Kahne's pit stop stategy to beat a runaway Stewart in Charlotte in May, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s fuel mileage win in Michigan and Kurt Busch's pit stop strategy in New Hampshire. It's possible to include Ryan Newman's victory in the Daytona 500 this year, since it resulted from Penske Racing's ability to get Newman and teammate Kurt Busch in and out of the pits together at the end of the race.
What we are finding out in this the first full season of the COT is who likes to drive a lopsided, top-heavy car, who can drive anything and who can't.
It would be illuminating to check in with Jimmy Makar, former crew chief and current senior vice president at Joe Gibbs Racing. Even Makar, who has led three drivers to four Cup championships, acknowledges budding star Kyle Busch can handle the challenges of the COT due to a preference in driving a car that is not exactly loose in the rear, but more free.
"We do the same things with all our drivers," said Makar of the Gibbs team, where Busch, who has eight victories, Stewart and Denny Hamlin handle driving chores. "Some of 'em adapt a little better," he continued. "Although he complains, complains, complains about the way the car drives, the COT fits Kyle's style better."
From my perspective, Stewart and Greg Biffle, who won two straight to start the Chase, are those guys who are at the top of the list of who can drive anything. Johnson, Edwards and Kyle Busch are the top three whose cornering style fit the COT's high center of gravity best. All of these drivers, not surprisingly, drive for the Big Three teams of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing or Joe Gibbs Racing, which have more money and engineering depth than the rest of the pack.
Given that the aerodynamics are heavily restricted on the COT, the near-miss by Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s Smith at Talladega indicates that perhaps the Alabama track is not nearly as much a test of the COT as it is a test in engine building. (Juan Pablo Montoya's strong showing might owe a great deal to the engines of Ernie Elliott and Dodge's new generation V-8, seen for the first time at a restrictor plate race.) But because of the differences in aerodynamics of the COT when it comes to front splitters and rear wings in place of airdams and spoilers, the COT handles differently, particularly in traffic. So it is a good test of adapting to new equipment.
Certainly, nobody will argue with Stewart's status as a major personality. Like that American original A.J. Foyt before him, he's the least predictable man in the garage as well as quite possibly the most talented. I happened to be in Daytona's garage the night Stewart was penalized for going below the yellow line by NASCAR officials in July of 2001, early in the administration of this controversial rule. (Some might say mal-administration.)
Shortly after slapping a tape recorder out of a journalist's hand, Stewart stormed the NASCAR trailer on this hot Daytona night. There, team owner and three-time Super Bowl coach Joe Gibbs, standing between Stewart and NASCAR officials, looked more like an NFL lineman as he physically restrained his driver.
Since then, Stewart's outburts have become less physical and less frequent but just as passionate when they do arrive. But hey, it's a tough business.
Tony can be fun and funny, too. I was also present at Daytona's media center when Stewart picked up a female journalist's cell phone to answer an incoming call, which happened to be from her husband. Stewart was hilarious as he chided the unsuspecting husband for laying around home while his wife was out working, among other zingers, without revealing his identity.
GM surely believes in Stewart's talent after offering him the opportunity to start his own Chevy team next year with the multi-millions it used to send to Toyota convert Gibbs. And his current team must believe in Stewart, too, if they put winning cars under a guy getting ready to move on. The same driver that sarcastically lambasted the team over the radio on the cool down lap at Dover.
For Stewart, who has proven he can win in IndyCars, stock cars, sprint cars, Silver crown entries, midgets and dirt Late Models, owning a Sprint Cup team may be the ultimate challenge. Without a team owner looking over his shoulder, will Smoke be any less tumultuous in the future out of consideration to sponsors?
Let's hope not.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.