Smoke Speaks: The wit, wisdom and worldview of Tony Stewart through the years (Part One)

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Tony Stewart, Media Darling.

That was the headline on a Sept. 14, 2005 release from Mike Arning, the longtime publicist for the NASCAR star. It ostensibly was designed to be absorbed straightforwardly ahead of appearances on David Letterman, Today and a myriad of national outlets – “Smoke” was enjoying maximum exposure on the cusp of his second championship and a few weeks removed from a signature breakthrough win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But it also was intended to be a subversive wink (Arning’s sense of humor can be as wickedly devilish as the man he represents) at the tumultuous relationship between a mercurial and tempestuous force of nature and the hordes of reporters who gamely attempted to chronicle his greatness with wildly divergent degrees of cooperation.

On his worst days, Stewart is the most obstinate and incorrigible curmudgeon in the Sprint Cup Series.

On his best, he is the most insightful, introspective and even intellectual interview subjects in racing.

Though a self-described “simple kid from a small town in Indiana,” there always has been a dizzying and fascinating depth to Stewart’s multilayered personality, and the same holds true for his worldview when you catch him in the proper frame of mind.

In two parts, here are a collection of excerpts from the most memorable and revealing interviews with Stewart that were compiled by this writer over the past 15 seasons of covering NASCAR full time. Some are group sessions, some are one-on-one sitdowns, but each is intended to provide a glimpse of the many sides of “Smoke.” The first part will cover 2002-08, Stewart’s last season before taking on ownership (click here for Part Two):

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Feb. 15, 2008

During his last few seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart held an annual preaseason sitdown with several sportswriters outside his motorhome on the weekend of the Daytona 500. His last before leaving JGR was memorable.

Q: Has being the host of a SiriusXM radio show changed your outlook? 

Stewart: “It hasn’t changed my opinions about things, I just get to voice them in a forum. It gives me an advantage over you guys because I get to see things from a different side than you guys do. As far as journalism, you guys are 1,000 times better than I could ever try to be. I couldn’t do what you guys do. I just talk about stuff I see. I’ve got a different perspective on it, and I think that’s why it works. People want to see it from the side I’m on. Like today, we’re not sitting in the media center dealing with everyone (in an open session). I can be more open and don’t have to worry about, ‘Oh my God, I said one word that could be taken the wrong way and someone’s going to take it and run with it.’ ”

Q: Do you worry about the repercussions of your words?

Stewart: “Oh yeah. Absolutely. Not so much for me. But that’s the one that undeservedly gets tortured (pointing at Arning). As soon as I say something the wrong way, he gets beat up over it by the media center. Even if it’s two guys who beat up on him, yeah, that’s what he gets paid to do, but he doesn’t deserve it. And it’s not just him, then (manager) Eddie (Jarvis) who has to hear from him, so he gets beat up. It’s the trickle-down effect.

“I signed up to drive race cars, and that’s all I want to do. I don’t care about being a headliner or someone who’s going to create headlines. That’s not what I signed up for. It’s part of what happens, and you learn that and go on. It makes you very conscious. I don’t think it’s just this group of people. Go to football, baseball, basketball, politics and society as a whole thrives on other people’s misery. That’s just society.”

Q: You understand why people hang on your every word, though?

Stewart: “Probably not entirely. Probably not. I know I say it in a way that makes people gasp for air a lot of times, and that’s part of it. But I don’t even see the whole story and why it’s so big.”

“I’ve learned you could take it too far and not know where that edge is. It’s like I’ve always said, nine of 10 people get it, but if that 10th person doesn’t, he’s the one who makes Mike work overtime Monday and Tuesday and me work Monday and Tuesday, and those are my only two days off, and it screws my week up.”

Q: Watching racing as a kid, did you like the driver because of the way he raced or his personality?

Stewart: “I always liked the way they raced. Steve Kinser never talked and hardly still talks, but I liked Steve because of what he did with the race car. It’s that simple to me. As the years went on and I got to know A.J. Foyt, his personality is a life of its own. I grew to love that side of it. But from the standpoint that I knew a side of him that 99 percent of people never saw, that’s what made that fun with him.”

Q: How long did it take to understand the impact with sponsors?

Stewart: “Probably the first time I got called down to Atlanta to talk to Home Depot about it. It didn’t take long to realize you have to look at it from their perspective, too. When they’ve got a stack of emails this tall that people aren’t liking what’s going on, it makes you think that being myself wasn’t productive for people paying the bills.

“The hardest part of the whole thing is I can’t get away from my past. That’s the part that absolutely digs at me. The hard thing is you can’t ever get away from what you did. No matter how hard I try to do things the right way now, if I make the smallest mistake, it all reverts back to what I did five or six years ago. That’s where it gets so frustrating is that it feels like there are days when it’s not worth it.”

Q: Can a driver carry a car to a win as much as in the past?

Stewart: “Not in this day and age. We were talking to A.J. Foyt on the radio show the other night about young drivers, and as technology and time have gone on, the window of getting your car right is smaller and smaller and smaller. The problem with that is with the emphasis more on the engineers than the drivers. What the engineers have done is made the package smaller on getting the car right. You still have to have a driver that can put it in that window and drive it to its capabilities. When you have a window that small, you can pick up half a 10th of a second as a driver, and that makes that half a 10th even more important than five years ago. It makes the emphasis on the driver more important, but it’s not just the driver, it’s still getting that car right, too. And that’s where I was saying about the engineers being such a critical part. If they can pick up a half a 10th, it’s just as important as the drivers picking up half a 10th. It just makes every area from A to Z that much tighter a window and that much more critical than before.”

Q: How do you feel about people saying they get intimidated by you?

Stewart: “If you’re having a bad day, you don’t want me hanging around, either. It’s not against you guys. If I’m having a bad day, I don’t want to be around anybody. I don’t know too many people that don’t get that way. I’m better about it than I used to be. When I’m having a bad day I try not to make it infectious on everyone else and make everyone else have a bad day just because I’m having a bad day. I hope at least in the last couple of years, you guys have seen that a little bit. Yeah, there’s days I’m having a bad day and don’t want to be bothered.”

Q: Greg Zipadelli never takes it personally when you have a bad day and are screaming about the car?

Stewart: “When you’re running 200 mph and your car isn’t running good, you’re worried about whether you’re going to make it to the next stop or not. When it gets to that stage — I’m saying it drives like a piece of (crap) — that normally means I’m hanging onto it. And if I can’t, I’m going to crash, and if I crash, I’m probably going to have a headache for the rest of the day at a very minimum because when I hit something, it’s going to hit my head enough that I’m going to have a headache. When we first started, it’d devastate the guys (when he complained about the car) on the radio because those guys work their tails off to make the car as good as it can. When you say it’s the worst you’ve ever driven, it takes the wind out of their sails. But I think now it’s part of that communication. Instead of saying, ‘It’s bad,’ how bad is it? If it’s ‘the worst piece of,’ he knows how bad that is. That’s probably an advantage we do have over everyone else because it does help with that communication. The guys know I appreciate their work and the hours they put on cars and my comment is not a reflection on their man hours, but how the car is driving. There’s times I’ve said that, and Zippy said, ‘Calm down and stay focused.’ He can sense I’m getting frustrated. That’s where that relationship comes in is knowing that words are words, but he can tell the emotions behind the words.”

Q: Do you thrive on controversy?

Stewart: “I just can’t stay away from the controversy. It’s not that the controversy makes me rise, it seems I’m always in the middle of it whether I want to be or not. It’s just learning to work around it. You learn when you get in a race car that whatever’s gone on before it, you put it out of your mind.”

Q: Why do you seem to struggle with tuning out the negativity from others?

Stewart: It’s hard to not hear people. It’s easy to hear people talk. I don’t know how Jeff Gordon does it. He’s been booed for all these years, and I would love to know the secret of how he does it. It’s the same example I used probably 4-5 years ago. There was a little kid standing next to his dad yesterday, we were getting ready for the (Daytona 500) qualifying race, and we went off the (driver introduction) stage, and hell, it was just the two of them right there. And the kid goes, ‘Boo!’ I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What have I directly ever done to this kid to make him do that?’That’s the thing I always wonder. Then the more amazing part is the parents don’t teach him any better. It gives you the mindset of what do these people really think about what we’re actually doing here? Do they really understand what we’re doing? Do they understand why we do it? Do they understand what goes into being a race car driver? It makes you shake your head. I’m not better than those people, that kid or that father. But I think about things differently than they obviously do. It doesn’t mean I do it right. Maybe they’re doing it right and maybe I just don’t get it.

“When I’m at Eldora, I’m listening to everything everybody’s saying. If somebody says, ‘Man, the show’s running late tonight, my kids are tired, the restroom lines are too long,’ I want to hear that. That’s stuff I’ve got to hear. I guess I would probably be in a lot less trouble and a lot less emotional about it if I just didn’t care. If I could train myself to just not hear what people say, it’d make my life a lot easier.

“I wish I knew Jeff’s secret. I’ve got more respect for Jeff Gordon than anyone else in the series. I’d dread getting in that car and going around the track. It’s a lot easier to hear the boos than the cheers. You get to the point that you start asking every week, ‘Why do I do this? What about me makes me want to come do this every weekend.’ ”

Q: Have you asked Jeff Gordon about how he handles it?

Stewart: “No. Everybody’s busy. Jeff’s got a wife and kid to take care of now. As limited as our time is, that’s the last thing I want to do is ask time out of his schedule and take him away from what he wants to do. I know how much I value my time, too. If we were stuck in the same room and we were going to be there and we had time to kill, yeah, I’d love to ask him about it.”

PHOENIX INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY, April 19, 2007

This interview centered on Stewart’s father, Nelson, taking an active, hands-on role in designing and building the headquarters for Tony Stewart Racing’s USAC and World of Outlaws teams in Brownsburg, Ind.

Q: So your dad had some good things to say about you letting him take the point in building your sprint car shop?

Stewart: “Oh, I’m sure he did. You look up at ‘knucklehead’ online, the home page has a big picture of him on there.”

Q: How did you know he could handle it without prior experience?

Stewart: “His attention to detail. He’s just real anal about stuff — enough that it drives most people insane, myself included. The only person I felt bad for on the project were the people who had to build it and deal with him every day.”

Q: Do you like walking into that shop as Tony Stewart, car owner?

Stewart: “I’m one of the guys. They don’t treat me any differently than they do anyone else on that team when I’m there. They don’t treat me like I’m the guy who pays the bills. They don’t treat me like a NASCAR driver. To them, I’m still a short-track, Midget, Sprint car driver. I just don’t get to run full time.”

Q: Is it reminiscent of starting your career racing go-karts with your father?

Stewart: “When we raced, we were on a very tight budget and didn’t have a lot of money to make sure we could buy everything. With him having to work, I was responsible for doing certain things, and certain things were his responsibility. We did it together. We took a lot of pride in the fact that we didn’t have the budget a lot of these other guys had. I think a lot of NASCAR fans think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and got everything that I wanted. It’s the total opposite of that. We would go to races and buy the tires that guys had run the week before, and they could afford to buy new setups. We’d spend half the money, and we’d still run well and win races.” 

Q: This might be dime-store psychoanalysis but is giving him free reign to construct that shop a way of saying thanks for what he did in helping your career as a kid?

Stewart: “First of all, he doesn’t have free reign. He wants to think he has free reign. He thinks he’s the boss of that shop, and he’s an employee of mine (laughs). He’s tried to take things upon himself that I’ve had to pull the reins back and remind him who actually runs the show around here. There’s one thing about him that I never worry about: There’s never a lack of enthusiasm for what he does. He’s not going to do something half ass. He does it 100 percent and always finishes everything he does.”

MARTINSVILLE SPEEDWAY, March 31, 2007

Stewart is an avid car collector who recently had attended the Barrett-Jackson auction before this interview.

Q: What was your haul from the auction?

Stewart: “I bought three cars and a motorcycle. I like street rods and stuff, but there really wasn’t anything about it that was stock except the Ford Galaxie. Everything was custom, and I really like custom cars. The Nomad I bought was a really nice custom. The truck I just got for the right price. It was Sunday and the weather was bad and wasn’t looking to buy, but I saw it and was like, ‘I’ll go see what it does, if it’s cheap, I’ll bid on it.’ I got a pretty good deal.

“It was awesome. It’s fun. It wasn’t just a car auction, it was an event. There’s so much going on, it made it fun. It was a good time.”

Q: Is it intimidating and do people notice you?

Stewart: “Oh yeah. Especially when you’re not used to being up there on the block and everything. When I bought The Nomad, Reggie Jackson was helping me when I bid, and he kept saying, ‘Not yet, not yet.’ I had an idea what I thought it would go to, and how much I was willing to spend, and it wasn’t up there yet. So I waited and waited and waited, and when I got in my bid, I bid one time and the guy turned around and saw it was me and walked away. I don’t know if he knew who it was or that was as high as he was willing to go. Trust me, I was a minnow in a bass pond. There were a lot of guys that had a lot more money than I did that were buying eight, 10, 20 cars. It was fortunate that I got what I got.”

Q: Do people bring as much as they can afford to lose?

Stewart: “You don’t lose it, though, you take away something. If you spend money there, you took something home with you. It’s neat. It’s not just cars, it’s all the memorabilia stuff and restored fuel pumps and vintage signs. Really neat.”

Q: How did you meet Reggie Jackson?

Stewart: “Reggie and I ended up bidding against each other on the first car. I didn’t get it. The guy helping me said he wouldn’t spend over X amount of dollars for it. I bid right up to that and never got a bid in, I just stopped. Reggie ended up getting the car, another Nomad but it wasn’t as nice as the one I ended up with. I wasn’t willing to spend the amount it brought. We talked a lot over the next three days.”

Q: So you have a love of cars in common?

Stewart: “Yeah, the collector car hobby is new to me, but it’s something he’s been involved in for a long time. He’s got 80 cars. It was pretty neat to hang out with someone like him that knows how to deal with people who try to run you off. And try to keep bidding you up knowing that you want a car real bad. He had some really good advice on helping me bid on cars.”

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY, Feb. 17, 2007

Another motorhome session two days before another disappointing showing in the Daytona 500. Stewart is in a good mood, “this is the first chance I’ve had to relax (during Speedweeks).”

Q: You’ve won five of six races entering Daytona, and none of them in NASCAR. How does Joe Gibbs feel when you’re moonlighting with a Chili Bowl victory?

Stewart: “It always makes him nervous as a coach and car owner. He understands why I go to do that. I don’t do it for the money. It’s not any money compared to what he pays us. That was his standpoint, ‘Why are you going and putting yourself in danger for $2,000 to win when you can make 100 times that this coming weekend?’ I said, ‘It’s not about the money, Joe, it’s about driving a car and doing what I love to do.’ I think we’ve met in the middle to a certain degree, but he knows I’m not going to go just get in anybody’s car or any type of car. I get in equipment that I’m familiar with and know is built safely.”

Q: Do you want to try Sprint Cup ownership?

Stewart: “No. I don’t know I want to get that big. The shop with the USAC and Outlaw teams is just big enough to keep me happy. I don’t know I want to have that responsibility and headache of having Cup and Busch teams.”

Q: Are the racetracks you own self sustaining?

Stewart: “I still owe a lot on them. And I don’t mind that. The day that I retire is the day that I want it all to be paid off. I don’t plan on retiring today so I don’t care that they’re not all paid off. The thing with the racetracks is important is I make my monthly payments and that’s all I pay on them. The rest we save for the end of the year and put into improvements. We got new Musco lights. People joke with me about that we have ceramic tile in the women’s restroom. I don’t know there’s a dirt track in the country that has ceramic tile in the women’s restroom, but I put a big emphasis on I wanted women when they walked in to stop and say, ‘Wow.’ And that’s what we’ve worked hard for. And everything that we make, we’re putting right back into the facility.” 

Q: Are there any tracks you don’t like?

Stewart: “Yeah, ones I haven’t been to yet! Really, there’s not. Every racetrack is fun. Every track is unique. Every track has a challenge, and it’s neat to try to conquer that challenge.”

Q: Would you have liked to conquer North Wilkesboro?

Stewart: “I wish I could have.”

Q: Would you buy it?

 Stewart: “I need to get the other ones paid off first.”

 TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY, April 8, 2006

 Years before the inception of “Boys, Have at It,” Stewart had been a longtime advocate of allowing drivers more freedom to settle differences. The interview was prompted when Stewart was angry about a camera that caught Jeff Green and Dale Jarrett arguing  in the motorhome lot after the 2006 Daytona 500.

Stewart: “It’s not a bad problem, but the problem is it’s how our sport has evolved to where there’s so much access to everything that we do that there’s no private place to hash out differences. Everywhere we go, there’s a flock of people running, and as soon as we come out of the NASCAR trailer or someone else’s trailer, there’s a flock of people around wanting to know what happened. Drivers used to settle it one on one without crew guys or the officials and everyone else, it all used to be policed by the drivers. Now with the media being involved and NASCAR having to get involved in the center of it, it doesn’t happen that way.”

Q: There’ve been times after races you want to go and talk to a guy in the garage, and you know you can’t because you’re worried about the perception?

Stewart: “Absolutely. A lot of times what happens is it makes the problem worse, because instead of settling the problem and getting to an understanding right away, you leave mad and frustrated because you didn’t get a chance to do that, and you still have that anger built up inside of you, so instead of getting it over with and out of the way before it got to be a problem, now by morning it’s a bigger problem then.”

Q: And then you can make a call Monday or Tuesday, but the differences have festered and isn’t face to face by then.

Stewart: “Exactly. It’s something that some guy did something wrong to you, he doesn’t have to be accountable and doesn’t have to meet you face to face and discuss it and understand exactly how frustrated you are with it.”

Q: How would you settle things while racing sprint cars?

Stewart: “Sometimes you got in a fistfight with a guy and then you helped load each others’ cars up and you went and ate dinner together afterward. That’s the way it was, if you did something wrong to somebody, you understood this was the consequence with them. And everybody was different. If I crashed Zippy, he might come out swinging but when I was on the racetrack the next time, I knew that if I did something wrong and raced him the wrong way, that’s what I was subject to deal with afterward. That’s why you get these young guys in here that think that they can rule the world all of a sudden because they don’t have to be accountable for what happens. Everything is so protected now, if someone bumps into somebody, the media is so over the top of it, they don’t realize that maybe it’s because of something that happened before, and this is how it’s getting settled. It’s made the frustrations of everybody even higher than it’s ever been.

“We can’t settle it in the bus lot without a TV camera being there to capture it all. That’s our area, not TV’s area. That’s where our homes are for the weekend. There’s no race cars in there.”

Q: So your solution would be to take the cameras out of the motorhome lot?

Stewart: “We should have an area to ourselves to deal with it. Not this wait til Monday to call each other to deal with it. When a guy’s sitting there on the other end  and he can say whatever he wants and he doesn’t have to be accountable for anything he says or does, it doesn’t really mean anything to call someone on the phone. Now nine times out of 10, the phone conversation on Monday or Tuesday, it works great. But there’s some drivers that don’t work with. They need a little more reassurance. They sometimes just don’t get it, period. They need to be shown this is the way it is, period.”

PHOENIX INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY, Nov. 11, 2005

As the featured guest of a weekly news conference organized by title sponsor Nextel, Stewart was in a good frame of mind just two races from his second title.

Q: What would it mean to win the championship with no distractions off the track?

Stewart: “It would mean everything to me. That’s why I want to win so bad this year. (The) 2002 (title) was probably one of the worst personal years of my life, even though it was one of the most gratifying professional years of my life as far as winning a championship, but it’ll mean 10 times more if we can do it this year. I think the entire team will enjoy it more.”

Q: You were featured in a full page of Time. Did you ever think that you or NASCAR would receive that recognition?

Stewart: “I don’t read Time Magazine, I’m sorry. I’d look at the pictures if I do — just on accident sitting in the waiting room for the doctor. I don’t read the articles anymore unless it’s Speed Sports News. It’s really flattering to our sport though. Obviously, knowing about Time’s reputation and how prestigious they are, I think it’s really neat that our sport is in there, and I feel really flattered that I was a part of that from the NASCAR side. I haven’t read the article. I hope I did it some justice, which scares me because anytime I’m involved, you never know what it’s going to be about. So, hopefully I didn’t embarrass us too badly.”

Q: Why is your sense of humor emerging this season?

Stewart: “You guys are finally understanding that it’s a sense of humor instead of using it against me (laughs). It’s a little easier to open up and have fun with it when you don’t feel like you’re walking around wondering, ‘Why is this knife in my back today?’ It’s a comfort level. I think we’ve been around (the news media) long enough that you guys finally understand when I’m being a smart-ass and you know when I’m having fun. As time goes on, we get to know you better and you get to know us better and you realize that there is a professional side and a fun side to us that people sometimes don’t know how to take it. They don’t know if I’m being mean or if I’m just having fun. Our favorite saying at home is that it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt and then it’s hilarious.”

ATLANTA MOTOR SPEEDWAY, Oct. 28, 2005

A controversial incident at Martinsville – where Stewart was perturbed that rival crew chief Chad Knaus disparaged his car and team on the No. 48 radio during practice – spawned a civil discussion of trash talking.

Q: Is there a rivalry with Chad Knaus now?

Stewart: “We’ll see what Chad says the remainder of the season. I don’t think Chad thought deep enough into it to realize that you don’t want to do that with us because you’re picking with the wrong guy there because we pick back. I think he’ll be a little less vocal these next few weeks. You ask why it’s such a big deal? It would be like somebody talking about your mom.”

Q: But you’ve been so good all year. Who cares what anybody says about your team?

Stewart: “Well, let me keep talking about your mom and see what you think about that. That’s the easiest way to describe it. I’m not going to quote him. But if you had a team and he was talking about you the way he talked about us … It was done with the intent of intimidating us.”

Q: Mind games don’t work on you?

Stewart: “I’ve been doing this for 26 years. I’ve played mind games with people, and I’ve had people play mind games with me. When it comes to the mind game side, he’s bringing a knife to a gunfight. So, he’s probably better off picking on one of the other nine teams that he’s competing against for the points and try that angle.”

SAN FRANCISCO, June 30, 2003

At an annual news conference in Ghirardelli Square for the Sonoma race, Stewart engaged a group of reporters in a freewheeling discussion.

Q: Why do so many promotions for sponsors?

Stewart: “I want to do the promotional stuff. I’m absolutely scared to death that some day all of this will go away, and I’ll have to find a real job. I’m not joking about that, it terrifies me to think about it.”

Q: When will you get married?

Stewart: “I’d get married, but I’ve got some things that I need to fix first. If I have a problem with my car, I can take it down to Pep Boys and have it fixed. If I have a toilet overflow, I can call a plumber, but the things that I need to fix, there’s no one but me to fix it. It may take a while and it’s not going to be that easy.”

Q: Are you really squirreling away money just in case for NASCAR fines?

Stewart: “Yes, it’s true. My mom has $20,000 set aside in a bank account just in case I need it. I figure that would take care of two $10,000 fines. If I don’t need it, we’ll use it for a Christmas fund.”

SAN FRANCISCO, June 20, 2002

Stewart had Jeff Gordon alongside for this news conference, which frequently revolved around their banter and friendship.

Q: You and Jeff have been involved in some controversies but clearly get along well. What have we missed?

Stewart: “You don’t see drivers getting drunk-driving charges, or beating their wives, or drugs, alcohol abuse. Our sport is a very clean sport, any time anything is a little off-center, it’s a lot of news to write about. So if I trip over my shoelaces, at least three newspapers have it the next day as a major column. So like I’ve always told people: NASCAR is like The Waltons on steroids. You’ve got 43 brothers every week to start the race, and 38 races a year. If we didn’t disagree once during the entire season, none of us is trying very hard. We’re going to disagree. When Jeff and I disagree, it’s a major, major story. If you don’t have that once in a while, you don’t have two guys that are racing hard.

“We don’t think much about it. I think of him as another guy. I see him more than my own family. So to a certain degree, he is my family. Guys want to make rivalries. It’s not rivalries. It’s just guys who disagree.”

Q: How has Jeff gotten closer to you and others since his divorce?

Stewart: “He’s a lot more open, has more time to spend with the guys he’s racing with. After we ran the Coca-Cola 600, the next day, we were all out on the lake together. You didn’t see Jeff hanging out in Charlotte with the racers on the lake before. Now that he’s living in Charlotte and spending more time there, see him a lot more.  You do things away from the racetrack. A lot of us never had that chance before. We see a more personal side of Jeff.

“I feel bad for him. What it all boils down to, we’re race car drivers, we’re not rock stars, we’re not movie stars. I can’t speak for Jeff but I don’t want my life to turn into that. That’s why I’ve shied away from the media.”

Q: Has Jeff helped you in dealing with fame?

Stewart: “When Jeff was living in Florida, it was hard to get access to him. You learn things. Jeff tells you little things. He’s had it as rough as anybody but he’s probably dealt with it the best of anybody in the series. I always looked to Jeff as a guy to pattern how you deal with situations you do as a NASCAR driver. He’s probably dealt the best of anyone in our series.”

Ryan: Enough with the hand-wringing on retaliation, here are your clearly drawn lines

AP Photo/Don Petersen
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The most important line in NASCAR lately doesn’t involve when the checkered flag waves and definitively determines the winner of a race.

No, this line is much hazier: The apparently nebulous border between being regarded a well-heeled, responsible citizen of NASCAR Nation who still gets a point across and (gasp!) an irresponsible scofflaw who indiscriminately commits revenge in the least noble of ways.

In the wake of Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon escaping punishment for attempting to handle their own administering of justice, it seems everyone is searching for a line on where the line is in NASCAR …

Or if it exists at all.

These are desperate times, kids!

(Especially with the Cup Series headed to Martinsville Speedway this weekend.)

But fear not for those worried about the future of the republic in Charlotte and Daytona. I’ve got a handy chart that delineates the transgressions that will earn scorn.

Ready? Let’s draw some lines!

If you intentionally wreck a guy while nine laps down, that’s bad.

Expect a two-race suspension or worse.

Also, feel free to avoid poking Brian France on Twitter about it.

If you intentionally wreck a guy while racing for position, that’s not as bad, particularly if it’s well-disguised.

It might not earn you a punishment, and if it does, it probably won’t be so drastic.

If you are traveling roughly 50 mph and lightly pin another car against the wall and cause so much “damage”, that car still finishes on the lead lap, that is mostly OK the first time (but probably not the second).

It helps if you also finish well behind that car (which ruined your shot at winning with a rookie mistake).

But there will be some slight punishment: Be prepared to spend some quality NASCAR couch time with Steve O’Donnell and your favorite series director discussing the merits of getting angry under caution.

If you swing at a guy but don’t hit him flush and then fall down and wind up the only guy who is bleedingyou only will have to live with your injured pride.

If you swing and hurt someone or break their bones, you will face some sort of penalty based on the severity of the injury.

You know, as you would for any sort of physical assault in the real world.

If you scream at another guy and get held back by your team in a shoving match without much violence that goes viral, your sponsor might give you a bonus for the millions of extra impressions. But don’t expect any residuals from the tracks that incessantly use those highlights to sell tickets.

Good news, though! You won’t be fined as you would have been 11 years ago.

If you walk onto a hot track and angrily gesture at a driver who wrecked you, be prepared to write a five-figure check and then justifiably wonder about how that money is being spent.

Now we know where the lines are. That wasn’t hard!

Kidding aside, there is only one line that truly needs delineation, and it applies not just to NASCAR but to everything in life.

Every action has consequences. Choose your actions wisely.

A few other leftovers from the past week and weekend at Auto Club Speedway:

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Courtesy of some salient points made by NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, driver fraternization and prerace introductions were a hot topic on social media.

For some, it prompted the memory of a heated exchange between Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin after a dustup in a 2015 Daytona 500 qualifying race.

“You don’t have to actually hit me,” Patrick said. “I like you, Denny. You’re my friend.”

“I know, you’re my friend,” Hamlin said. “I get it.”

There’s no removing the friendships formed in the motorhome lot from modern-day NASCAR, where most of the drivers in the Cup series are raising families on the road, and teams want to simplify and streamline their lives outside the car.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

But how much of a Chinese wall needs to be built between the personal interactions of the motorhome lot and the professional workings of the garage?

At the very least, Letarte’s idea is worthy of being considered by tracks. There’s enough time for socialization throughout the course of a race weekend, and it probably is best done outside the view of the public.

When drivers walk out of their motorhome lot and underneath signs such as this one on the left at Texas Motor Speedway (“The greatest drivers and mechanics in the world work here!”), everyone’s gloves should go on, and their guards should go up.

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–Monster Energy is based in Corona, California, about a 30-minute drive to Auto Club Speedway, and the new series title sponsor made its presence felt at the 2-mile oval.

Monster erected a major hospitality display in the infield, and Clint Bowyer was among the drivers who took a tour of company headquarters.

“We had a ton of fun over there,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “The brass there was eager to meet us and bench race, which is always fun with any organization you meet.

“When the brass (wants) your perspective on the job they’re doing and what they can do to further enhance the impact, it’s a breath of fresh air. We definitely had that. I do think you’ll continue to see a bigger splash as we go on.”

There were some misgivings that Monster might have made too big a splash, however, with a drivers meeting entrance at Fontana that resembled the sort of club found in nearby Hollywood (minus the midday sunshine).

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The University of South Carolina’s first Final Four run will have much resonance in NASCAR, which has strong connections to the Palmetto State. NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bud Moore and Cotton Owens hail from South Carolina.

Late Darlington Raceway president and NASCAR PR executive Jim Hunter played football and baseball at South Carolina, and NBCSN analyst Dale Jarrett was offered a golf scholarship there.
Among those active in NASCAR who hail from South Carolina: Kerry Tharp, Darlington Raceway president; Brett Griffin, spotter for Clint Bowyer and Elliott Sadler (and an active Gamecocks fan on Twitter); Jason Ratcliff (crew chief for Matt Kenseth);

Donnie Wingo (crew chief for Landon Cassill); Steve Addington (longtime crew chief);Michael Nelson (vice president of operations at Team Penske); Jeremy Clements (Xfinity driver for family’s Spartanburg-based team).

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–It might have been prompted by being the leadoff to his media availability Friday, but the answer had the sort of edge unaccustomed from Jimmie Johnson.

“People are questioning your performance this year. Are you guys at a point where you could get that seventh win here?” asked Kickin’ The Tires.net editor Jerry Jordan (in a blunt but fair question).

“Sixteen years, 80 wins, and seven championships and people want to question us? I mean, come on,” Johnson immediately responded with a slight laugh, before telling Jordan, “I know it’s not you. You can’t be on top forever.  I think that we do have some work to do, especially on the short run.

“We haven’t executed as cleanly as we need to.  Daytona, we are running second or third and get crashed, last week we were a good top five, maybe top three car on the long run, but finished with some short restarts that was our weak point.  Yeah, sure, absolutely we have work to do, but nobody should panic.”

Of course, those turned out to be famous last words on a lost weekend in which Johnson crashed in practice, didn’t make a qualifying lap in a backup car and finished a nondescript 21st.

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is right that it’s too early to ask too many questions about his lack of results. But his answer made it natural to wonder whether some questions have crossed his mind, too.

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Buried in the multimillion-dollar countersuit Kurt Busch filed last Friday against his former management agency was this nugget: When he entered into a 2010 contract extension with Sports Management Network, the firm received 4% of Busch’s base salary at Penske, or $250,000.

Kudos to colleague Dustin Long (who has more than two decades of experience combing through legal documents with these sorts of details) for noting that means Busch’s base salary was $6.25 million at Penske. Such driver compensation rarely comes to light.

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The best racing of the weekend was in the Xfinity race, which featured a stirring duel for the lead between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, and then another fierce battle at the front in heavy traffic between winner Kyle Larson and Logano (who rallied three times from deep in the pack).

Yes, all those drivers are full-time Cup regulars. There are some who will make the case that should disqualify the Xfinity race from being evaluated as stellar, but it’s impossible to deny it delivered the highest entertainment value (regardless of who was racing the cars).

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–NASCAR’s Snapchat account Sunday was filled with Hollywood types pledging their allegiance to stock cars, and roughly four dozen celebrities were in the pits for the Auto Club 400.

This isn’t new for Fontana, which has a long history of trying to attract the beautiful people from the west side of Los Angeles (with mixed results). But it’s good to see NASCAR actively leveraging their attendance into something tangible (even if in the most ephemeral of social media mediums).

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Martinsville Speedway

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With NASCAR’s “West Coast Swing” over, the sport returns east this weekend with a visit to Martinsville Speedway.

While the Xfinity Series takes a week off, the Camping World Truck Series returns for its first race since March 4 at Atlanta.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Truck Series.

Cup Series – STP 500

There are 38 cars on the entry lists for the first Cup race of the year at Martinsville Speedway. A full field would be 40 cars. The last four races have had 39 entries.

Jimmie Johnson won in the Cup Series’ last visit to the half-mile track last October. Kyle Busch is the defending winner of the STP 500. Busch led 352 of 500 laps to earn his first Cup win at the short track.

Click here for the full entry list.

Truck Series – Alpha Energy Solutions 250

There are 32 entries on the Truck Series’ preliminary entry list. Four entries, the No. 12, the No. 63, the No. 83 and No. 99 do not have drivers attached yet.

Chase Elliott is the only Cup Series driver in the field. He will drive the No. 23 for GMS Racing. It’s his second Truck race of the year.

Justin Haley will make his first Truck start of the year driving the No. 24 for GMS Racing. Joe Nemechek makes his third start of the year in the No. 87.

Johnny Sauter won the Truck Series’ last Martinsville visit in October. Busch is the defending winner of this race. Busch started second and led 123 of 255 laps on the way to the victory.

Click here for the full entry list.

NASCAR will examine angle of inside wall Matt Kenseth hit

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A NASCAR executive said series officials will work with Auto Club Speedway officials to see if there is a way to alter the angle of the inside wall Matt Kenseth hit in Sunday’s Cup race.

After contact from behind, Kenseth slid down the track in Turn 2 and through the skid path, hitting the SAFER barrier on the inside wall.

Kenseth hit a portion of the wall that was angled toward the track. Safety equipment was stationed behind that wall.

“I am OK, but I wouldn’t say I was as OK as I was last week,’’ Kenseth radioed his team after the incident, referring to his hard hit at Phoenix when a tire went down and he slammed into the SAFER barrier.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, was asked Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” about Kenseth’s incident and the angle that Kenseth’s car hit.

“We’ll download all the data, in this case from the incident data recorder, we’ll talk to Matt, we will inspect the car for sure with all of our safety engineers and kind of combine all that data and look at the angle and the speed and scrub and look at all that data to make sure that we have the best possible outcome,’’ O’Donnell said.

“One of the things you pointed out was the angle of the wall. It’s positioned that way for the safety equipment, but are there tweaks we can make? We’ve done that numerous times in terms of you see a crash that you never thought would happen and it kind of opens some eyes and (you) say, ‘OK is there a better way to potentially angle this wall?’

“So that is something we’ll work with the speedway and our safety engineers and the race team to look at, thankful that everything worked out. There was a SAFER barrier, Matt got out and walked away, and as you guys said, you never want to see that angle, and if we can prevent that, we certainly will.’’

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Late gamble to skip tires keeps Martin Truex Jr. from Fontana win

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Martin Truex Jr. will never know what might have happened if he had pitted for four tires late in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 NASCAR Cup race.

“I’d like to find out,” Truex told Fox Sports afterward.

By not pitting, Truex wound up finishing fourth after being the top challenger to winner Kyle Larson for most of the 404-mile race at Auto Club Speedway.

“It was definitely not the situation we wanted to be in, but we thought more guys would stay out there,” Truex said. “It was definitely a disadvantage at the end and just really tight. Holding on for fourth was good for points.”

Even though Truex fell to fourth, it was pretty much him vs. Larson for most of the race.

“We were right there all day long,” Truex said. “I felt like (Larson) had everybody covered. It was just a matter of who got out front and got clean air.

“Towards the end we had a little trouble in the pits. We didn’t take tires, everybody else did and we were at a big disadvantage those last couple restarts. Definitely happy to come out of here with a fourth with the tires we had on the car at the end.”

It still was a strong day for Truex, who led 73 laps. It just wasn’t a strong enough finish that kept him from a second win of 2017.

“We had a big disadvantage at the end, playing defense more than offense. We played offense all day, and I was able to run first or second most of the day.

“At the end of the day had a disadvantage on tires and that’s just the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes you make the call and it’s right and sometimes your call is wrong. We made the wrong one today, but to come home with a fourth after all that, definitely a good day for us.”

One of the few not so good things that happened Sunday was when Truex was involved in a tangle with Matt Kenseth on Lap 184 that sent the latter driver into the inside SAFER Barrier.

“We got together with the 20 on that one restart and I feel awful about that,” Truex told Fox. “I don’t know whose fault it was. I think we were both kinda moving at the same time.

“I was still coming up and he started to come down and we got together. Obviously, I’ve got to go talk with him about that. I feel terrible.”

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