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.”

10 coolest paint schemes from 2019

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With the year coming to a close, it’s time to reflect on what went down in 2019.

But this isn’t some serious retrospective on the events witnessed in NASCAR over the last 12 months.

Nope, we’re going to talk about paint schemes.

That’s it.

Without further ado, here are 10 of the coolest paint schemes that graced the track this year.

 

Corey LaJoie drives his Scooby-Doo car at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Corey LaJoie’s No. 32 Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine Ford

For the second year in a row, Go Fas Racing and sponsor CorvetteParts.com expressed their inner child for the Martinsville Cup race ahead of Halloween.

Following their “Peanuts” car in 2018, LaJoie’s car was transformed into the Mystery Machine from the Scooby-Doo cartoons.

It definitely echoes the Cartoon Network cars that competed in the 1990s and we don’t have a problem with that.

 

 

 

(Photo by Matthew Bolt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kurt Busch‘s No. 1 Star Nursery Chevrolet

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver didn’t wait until the Southern 500 to bring a throwback scheme to the track.

Busch had Star Nursery on his car for the spring race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A local Las Vegas sponsor, the company backed Busch when he won the 1999 Southwest Tour championship.

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

William Byron‘s No. 24 City Chevrolet … Chevrolet

Hendrick Motorsports dropped the hammer with Byron’s Southern 500 scheme, almost a direct copy of a car Cole Trickle drove in the movie Days of Thunder, which Hendrick Motorsports advised on the making of.

City Chevrolet is a real car dealership in Charlotte, North Carolina, that Rick Hendrick owns.

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Michael Annett‘s No. 1 Baby Ruth Chevrolet

JR Motorsports trotted out this tribute to Jeff Gordon’s 1992 Xfinity Series car at Darlington.

Having both the right number and the sponsor to complete the ensemble made it the MVP of the Xfinity Series’ portion of the throwback weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Alex Bowman‘s No. 88 Nationwide Patriotic Chevrolet

The Hendrick Motorsports driver arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway with this scheme for the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

Unlike the typical red, white and blue schemes for the Memorial Day race, Bowman’s had a more subtle approach and came away with a very slick look.

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Bubba Wallace‘s No. 43 Air Force P-40 Warhawk Chevrolet

Richard Petty Motorsports unleashed this scheme at the Bristol night race.

A tribute to World War II fighter planes, we can imagine being startled by seeing this car approaching in the rear-view mirror.

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Lyle Setter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Miller Lite Holiday Knitwear Ford

Sure, this paint scheme was raced in Arizona in the middle of November.

But we’re not going to fault the timing of this holiday-themed car.

While it would be easy call this an “ugly Christmas sweater” design, there’s nothing ugly about it.

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick‘s No. 4 Busch Beer Gen X Ford

The folks at Busch Beer proved it’s possible to have a sequel paint scheme … or would that be a prequel?

Harvick drove this Gen X-themed scheme at Pocono in July. Two months earlier, Harvick competed in the All-Star Race with a Millennial paint scheme.

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Ben Rhodes‘ No. 99 Havoline Ford

Rhodes and ThorSport Racing provided a blast from the past with this sponsor and scheme in the Truck Series.

Havoline made its return as a NASCAR sponsor for the first time since 2008. It was on Rhodes truck for eight races.

 

 

 

(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Harvick Beer Ford

Using the excuse that it was tired of giving free promotion to Kyle and Kurt Busch, Busch Beer turned the No. 4 car into the “Harvick Beer” car for the playoff race at Dover International Speedway.

For anyone who has played a NASCAR video game or collected diecasts, it’s a reminder of the kid friendly cars that replaced beer names with the names of the driver.

 

 

What was your favorite paint scheme this season? Let us know in the comments.

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)