A Tale of Two Drivers (Smoke vs. Rowdy)
Talking It Over With A Legend
If there's a checkered flag to be won, both of these guys will be there. They've won championships but if anything their desire to win another is only greater. Both are recognized as world-class wheelmen. Both have spent enough time in the Sprint Cup garage to have strong opinions on the future of the sport. And both have spent enough time in the NASCAR hauler to qualify for residency rights there. Yet fans do not and will never look at these two the same way. The real question is, why?
After Tony Stewart's wreck driving a Sprint car in Iowa this week, opinions are divided as to whether or not he should have been in the car. As a team owner, Stewart has responsibilities that extend beyond his own pleasure at a racetrack. But no one denies that Stewart himself is a true racer. Former NASCAR crew chief (and current ESPN commentator) Ray Evernham said it best on Twitter. “@tonystewartrepresents the heart and soul of a racer,deep down inside there is not a man among us that doesn't respect him 4 his commitment.”
Many racing fans feel likewise. A commenter on yesterday's article noted that, “Tony is,was, has been, a racer first, it's who Tony is... All these nay sayers behind their keyboards just don't have a clue.” NASCAR fans respect the fact that Stewart is a hard-nosed throwback, someone who isn't afraid to race anyone, anytime, in any kind of car. Sprint car fans respect Tony as well. Unlike many of their heroes who later became NASCAR stars, Stewart hasn't lost touch with his roots. You're just as likely to find him running a 30 lap feature on a Monday night as a 500 mile race on Sunday. By the number of races run, you're actually MORE likely to find him at that 30 lap feature. Racing is Stewart's downtime activity. He doesn't golf. He doesn't hunt or play basketball. He races.
Take a Bow
However, Tony isn't the only person in NASCAR who competes in lower tier series where the only thing on the line is a checkered flag. Kyle Busch has run all but five of the Nationwide series races this year, winning eight so far. He's also run five Camping World Truck series races, winning two. He owns a championship-caliber Truck series team that's won 21 races since 2010. Overall, he's won 91 races as a driver at the Nationwide and Camping World levels and many have speculated that he has a chance at surpassing Richard Petty's record 200 overall NASCAR victory mark- a record once thought unbreakable.
Unlike Stewart, Busch is not revered for his desire as a racer. In fact, Kyle seems to draw almost the exact opposite reaction. He's accused of poisoning the chance of developing drivers to compete for their own championships- despite putting young up and coming drivers in fast rides at KBM. He's accused of beating up on weaker competition- despite that competition learning just where they are developmentally by racing him.
2009 Nationwide Champion
In fact, Kyle Busch has already spurred some rule changes and many call for further changes to “stop” him. After he and Brad Keselowski won back-to-back Nationwide series titles, NASCAR forced drivers to choose a series. They could still compete in individual races but they would only accumulate points in one. With the rewards so much higher at the Sprint Cup level, that meant anyone running a full time schedule in Cup was no longer eligible for a Nationwide title.
Ricky Stenhouse won the next two Nationwide championships, yet he only won two races in his 2011 title season. The reason why? Sprint Cup regulars, while excluded from the championship chase, still enjoy chasing the checkered flags. Of the 34 races that season, Nationwide drivers won six. Kyle Busch alone won eight. Instead of being celebrated as a “real racer” who just wanted to go racing, Busch became the poster child for buschwhacking, an example of a guy whose very presence at the track was a detriment to other drivers.
Why such a vastly different opinion for the two?
Ending Hornaday's Season
Some might say that it's been Kyle's on-track actions that follow him everywhere. He wrecked Ron Hornaday out of the Truck series championship in 2011, an action that resulted in him being parked by NASCAR and effectively ending his Sprint Cup title hopes that year. His feud with Kevin Harvick, Hornaday's team owner, resulted in both drivers being called on the carpet by NASCAR. Busch has also had run ins with a variety of drivers over the years- most notably with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond in 2008. That wreck extended Junior's winless streak and infuriated Junior Nation for years to come. And who could ever forget his feud with 2012 Sprint Cup champion that resulted in this gem:
Bristol Driver Intro, Kyle and Brad (warning, NSFW)
Others say that it's Kyle's lack of maturity. He's been penalized for flipping off NASCAR officials. When things don't go well, he often refuses to speak to media members, remaining in his hauler. This is probably something he learned from his brother Kurt, who has talked himself out of Sprint Cup rides by not knowing when to walk away. After being cited for speeding, Kyle used sign language to tell a NASCAR official he was #1. He was also cited for driving over 120mph on a winding North Carolina road, resulting in the curious question of whether a driver who was legally unable to drive himself to the track should be able to drive on it.
Busch to NASCAR: You're #1
An Early Helmet Toss
Yet on both counts, Tony Stewart has found himself in similar situations. In terms of on track incidents, Stewart has been at the center of numerous wrecks and paybacks. During his rookie season, Stewart had a blowup with fellow driver Kenny Irwin that resulted in Stewart trying to climb inside Irwin's car. He likely doesn't trade Christmas cards with Brian Vickers after multiple wrecks. He bitterly complained about Vickers blocking him on track, then proceeded to cause a multi-car pileup the following year blocking Michael Waltrip. And no one is entirely sure what took place down under in January 2011. What is known is that Stewart left the country shortly after scuffling with a local track owner. The list of Stewart temper blow ups is long and yet it seems the more they occur, the more some NASCAR fans love him.
So, no poll for this column. It's difficult to sum up in a few short words why Tony is beloved and Kyle is hated. There are plenty of valid reasons why this is so, but instead of going there, I'd like to know what you think. Using the comment field below, explain why you think Tony Stewart is a “real racer” and Kyle Busch... is not. Or, if you feel differently, let everyone know why you think the two are looked at so differently. The discussion should be very interesting.