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Dustin Long, Greensboro News & Record

NASCAR's newest leader roars to life

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart once described himself as a pawn in NASCAR. Sunday night he rose to knighthood.

Stewart's prediction that "we're probably going to kill somebody" by Sunday's Daytona 500 wasn't just a driver crying wolf. This was the defending series champion who was challenging series officials to improve safety because he was scared by what happened in the Budweiser Shootout.

This was Stewart taking the role of garage leader.

A few drivers have tried to hold that mantle since Dale Earnhardt's death five years ago, but their reigns were short. Others didn't want the job.

Stewart asserted control with an old Earnhardt tactic. When Earnhardt felt NASCAR wasn't listening to the drivers, he went to the media and blasted series officials. That often got NASCAR's attention.
Stewart railed on NASCAR as soon as he climbed out of his car Sunday night. He told TNT's audience that "someone else is going to die at Daytona or Talladega with what we are doing here. I hope I'm not around when it happens."

Stewart repeated his concerns when he met the media moments later and suggested a solution. A short time later, Stewart met with NASCAR officials, including president Mike Helton.

There's probably not enough time to make a change before the 500, so drivers will continue to ram the rear bumpers of the cars in front of them to try to move forward while in the draft. Stewart is concerned the hard contact in bump-drafting will start crashes and cause a fatality. NASCAR has not had a driver killed in a crash in its top three series since 2001.

Stewart's safety sermon came days before the fifth anniversary of Earnhardt's death. While the series has made many safety changes since then, it was as if Stewart was nudging officials to look ahead not behind. Fix the future, don't admire the past.

It's evident Stewart does not want to be the garage leader on every issue. Yet drivers need someone to unify them on the key ones. Stewart has shown he's not afraid to speak up when he feels compelled to do so.
He challenged NASCAR two years ago a few days after NASCAR penalized Dale Earnhardt Jr. for cursing on TV after winning at Talladega. Stewart decried the penalty but admitted that drivers had little recourse.

"The easiest way to sum up the relationship between the drivers and NASCAR is that we are pawns on a chessboard," Stewart said then. "We don't make the big moves. We're just sacrificial lambs so to speak. They have their way of explaining to you very quickly that you can be replaced very, very easily in this sport no matter how popular you are."

NASCAR's stance seems to be changing. Series officials have had a more open-door policy with drivers since Earnhardt's accident. They also seem to be willing to listen to Stewart more. Other than Jeff Gordon, who has four titles, no full-time driver has won as many as Stewart's two crowns.
Championships are power in the garage -- if a driver chooses to use it.

"When Tony speaks, we're certainly going to listen to him," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president of communication.

Stewart also has the support of many in the garage. Although his tantrums have created rivals -- every driver has competitors they don't like -- many drivers say Stewart is as clean and hard a racer as there is. That earns respect.

Mark Martin, one of the more respected drivers in the garage for his clean-driving style, is a Stewart fan.

"Many of our fans," he said, "would have a much higher opinion and much higher liking for him if they knew who he was to the core because they've only seen one part of Tony."

Sunday, people saw another side of Stewart. A leader.

NASCAR needs fans to love/hate Gordon

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Face it, you need Jeff Gordon to win today at Kansas Speedway.
Especially if you hate him.

Otherwise, who will you root against in NASCAR's championship Chase? Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch? They didn't make it. Kyle Busch? His title chances are all but gone. Gordon is the only title contender within 100 points of the lead who stirs enough fan fervor to revitalize this Nextel Cup Chase.

Sports is about drama. Good vs. evil. You root for someone and against someone else.
Who's the "bad guy" in this Chase? There are plenty of "good guys.''

This Chase features the underdog in rookie Denny Hamlin, the comeback kid in points leader Jeff Burton and the sentimental pick in four-time runner-up Mark Martin.

Yes, you could root against Jimmie Johnson, but what's the point? Another year without a championship and he'll become the Peyton Manning of NASCAR.

Root against Dale Earnhardt Jr.? You've got to be kidding.

Wait, you say, Kevin Harvick is still in the Chase. True, but he has a solid fan base because he's with car owner Richard Childress. While some people don't like Harvick, more hate Gordon.

How much?

An ESPN Classic show titled "The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Hardcore Fans for Hating Jeff Gordon'' ran Sept. 14. It was the highest-rated of ESPN's 47 "Top 5 Reasons'' shows.

You need Gordon to enliven this Chase and revive Internet chatter. Some dormant anti-Jeff Gordon Web sites awoke after he nudged Matt Kenseth out of the lead to win at Chicagoland Speedway in July.

One person mentioned in a chat room that he has a bathroom done in the black and silver of Dale Earnhardt with one exception: Gordon's number, 24, decorates the toilet bowl. Do any other drivers with a realistic chance of winning the title rouse such emotions on such a large scale?

This Chase -- and the last couple of months -- lacks a reason to talk about NASCAR on Mondays. Or Tuesdays. Or Wednesdays. Maybe that's one of the reasons why TV ratings for many races this season are worse than last year's events.

"You've got to have somebody that people don't want to win,'' says Humpy Wheeler, the president of Lowe's Motor Speedway and the sport's version of P.T. Barnum. "Jeff Gordon is a little like (Dale) Earnhardt in a certain way. He's got fans, but he's also got people that don't like him at all. Mark Martin doesn't have that. Nobody I know of dislikes Mark Martin or Matt Kenseth.''

Gordon detractors have had little to shout about until recently. He missed the Chase last year. The boos faded, replaced by cheers from his dedicated fans and sympathy from others.

A new crew chief, new crew members and new setups reinvigorated Gordon and returned him to victory lane. His two victories this season are below his standards but that old mastery has begun to return. He's scored five top-five finishes in the last six races. His back-to-back third-place finishes place him six points behind Burton in the standings.

That success has Gordon focused on a fifth series championship.

"I'm not here to have a good time,'' Gordon said Friday. "I'm here to win.''

That's just what Gordon fans want to hear and Gordon detractors don't.

Gordon's next win will be his 76th and tie him with Earnhardt on the all-time victory list.

A win today and Gordon's first chance to pass Earnhardt's total comes next week at Talladega Superspeedway, almost like a home track for Earnhardt.

Remember Gordon's duel with Earnhardt Jr. at the spring 2004 race at Talladega? NASCAR ruled that Gordon passed Earnhardt Jr. before the yellow flag waved and finished the race under caution. Fans littered the track with trash. Not a response worth repeating but it shows the strong reaction Gordon elicits.

You either like him or don't. You either want him to win this championship or you want anyone but him.
Either way, Gordon vying for a title adds excitement to the Chase.

Kyle Busch draws boos but racing needs his spunk

JOLIET, Ill. - Kyle Busch is growing up, but is that good for NASCAR?The sport faces a shortage of talented drivers and unusual personalities. Busch combines both. He also evokes emotion. Nextel Cup fans likely will greet the 21-year-old with more boos than cheers before today's race at Chicagoland Speedway

Busch has earned the admonishment at times. Other times, Kurt Busch's younger brother is guilty by association. It's easy for some fans to dislike the Busch brothers because of their success and missteps.

Their actions enliven a NASCAR dulled by corporate makeovers. Performance off the track can mean more than performance on the track to some sponsors. Drivers shed personalities to pitch sponsor products.

"Obviously, we don't want cookie-cutter race car drivers that show no emotion,'' said NBC/TNT analyst Wally Dallenbach, a former racer. "We've seen that in the past.

"I think it's good for the sport when you start seeing some emotions."

NASCAR needs emotion. Without it, watching cars turn left for three hours is as exciting to many people as watching a World Cup soccer match.

Kyle Busch spices the sport. The former rookie of the year provides fans with action on and off the track.

Veterans criticized his driving at Daytona in February. He feuded with defending series champ Tony Stewart for a couple of weeks.

Busch later turned his attention to Casey Mears. Busch bumped Mears' car during a red flag at Phoenix as payback for an earlier incident. A month later he threw his neck restraint at Mears' car at Charlotte after both wrecked.

NASCAR penalized Busch, showing that the image-conscious sport is hesitant to allow too much showboating.

Racing is a show. It's color, noise and conflict with a bit of personality to stir the mixture.
Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, has said that any sport needs two superstars. NASCAR has that in Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.

The sport also needs a bad guy. Kyle Busch hasn't reached the full-fledged fan disdain achieved by such drivers as Dale Earnhardt, Gordon, Stewart and Darrell Waltrip, who once challenged fans to meet him in a parking lot. Unless he wins too much, Busch likely won't incite that much anger. He has detuned his attitude.

"He goes to the principal's office quite a bit, but he listens and you can see him making lots of efforts with the other drivers on the track," said car owner Rick Hendrick.

Busch also carries youthful enthusiasm. He barked on the radio after his qualifying run at Phoenix and celebrated his pole by jumping atop the pit wall.

He won the truck race at Charlotte with the name Rowdy Busch above the door, an ode to a character in "Days of Thunder," one of his favorite movies.

His crew members encircled Busch during driver introductions before the all-star race in May at Lowe's Motor Speedway. They fell down, while Busch remained standing. The skinny driver flexed his muscles and put his hand to his ear to encourage the crowd to make more noise at him.

Fans crave such interaction. Unless a fan has a garage pass, it can be difficult to get many autographs during a race weekend. In lieu of a signature, leaving a memory can be as strong.Fans have warmed to Stewart - who once angered them with his comments about too many people in the garage - because of his fence-climbing routine after victories. Many fans relish that interaction.

Fans have enjoyed a few other moments of excitement, from Stewart forcing Matt Kenseth off the track in the Daytona 500 to Gordon shoving Kenseth after the Bristol race and Kevin Harvick's tirade against Kurt Busch in March.

Such incidents could become more common, too.

NASCAR chairman Brian France plans to fiddle with the championship chase because he thinks that will "add to the drama and excitement."

The idea of more than 10 drivers racing for a championship or the likelihood that winning races will become more important during the chase ratchets the intensity. That leads to conflict. And excitement. And maybe more fans watching races on TV.

Just in time as ABC and ESPN begin broadcasting Cup races next season.

"We've got to excite these fans and make everybody excited to come around and enjoy what we do and let us do it,'' Kasey Kahne said. "We've got to keep them filling up the grandstands and watching on TV so we can keep doing this on Sundays."