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Fourth Place
David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Inside A Helmet, Everything Can Seem Different

CONCORD, N.C. – Preparing for a group interview session at the race track with Tony Stewart can be like girding for battle. You wear your thickest skin, arm yourself with your most original questions, brace for the possibility of verbal shrapnel. And when the glare from his unseen eyes penetrates even through those dark wraparound sunglasses, you'd better be ready to duck and move.

Then there are days like Tuesday, when Stewart was at the Boys and Girls Club of Cabarrus County to help hand out provisions to needy families whose vehicles wrapped all the way around the parking lot. On hand to announce the charity associated with the Prelude to the Dream, his June 6 dirt late model race at Eldora Speedway in Ohio – which this year will benefit Feed the Children – Stewart was thoughtful and engaging and funny, as he so often is when he's not around a race car. He even said "bless you" after a reporter sneezed.

Later, he rescued three kittens that were stuck in a tree.

OK, maybe it was only two kittens. Still, as is the case with many drivers, the individual in the golf shirt seems quite different from the one who's wearing a firesuit on the weekends. Darrell Waltrip thinks he knows why.

"It's the helmet," he said.

They put that thing on, the Hall of Famer said, and they become a different person. Intensity levels spike. Adrenaline courses. Pressure builds. Focus narrows to the car and the race track, and getting the most out of one on the other.

Distractions, like a mandatory media session at the back of the transporter, can become unwelcome. The world shrinks to only whatever is seen beyond the windshield. And disappointment can manifest itself in fury – as was the case Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, when Kurt Busch  responded to a late spin by peeling through an adjacent pit box and making contact with Ryan Newman's car on pit road following the event, actions that earned him a $50,000 fine from NASCAR.

"Some of these guys, all these guys, are the nicest guys. You take the Busch boys, away from the track ... they're nice guys. They're engaging, they're fun. But when they get to that race track and they put that helmet on – what did the guy say the other night? They turn into the Hulk," said Waltrip, who will be part of the team broadcasting the Prelude to the Dream on HBO pay-per-view.

"There's so much pressure, and you just give it your all. You put everything you've got into a race. It's just like Kurt did Saturday night. He drove a great race, and spun out. It absolutely will make you go insane, because you've driven your butt off. He drove on Friday night, came back and drove on Saturday night. You've driven your butt off, you've done a pretty good job, and then something happens late in the race. And it will, it will make you go crazy. And not just Kurt, I'm saying anybody. I've been there, I know. You want to hit something. You want to hit somebody. And you don't mean to hurt anybody or take it out on any particular person, it's just that adrenaline, that emotion, and that disappointment. It's hard to control."

That much was on display after the Darlington race, in not only Busch's actions but a crew dustup on pit road that followed the event. The result was more fines, including $5,000 to Newman's gas man, Andy Reuger, who stormed toward the No. 51 car early in the fracas. A member of Busch's team, Craig Strickler, was fined the same amount. Waltrip isn't surprised crew members got involved.

"Drivers never fight. They just woof," the three-time Cup Series champion said. "... Crew members fight. And I can think back to the '89 all-star race, if you want to see crews fighting. And if you think back to some Richmond races where crews were involved. Crew [members] are guys who have a lot at stake, too. They work on the cars, they build the cars, they have an emotional connection just like the driver does. And when they see something happen to their car, they take it personally. And when you take it personally, you react that way."

Waltrip knows from experience. He said he's had a few crew chiefs in his day who didn't mind mixing it up. "[Jeff] Hammond and them like to fight," he said, referring to his current broadcast partner at Fox Sports. "Barry Dodson and his bunch, they like to fight. Ol' Todd Parrott and his bunch, he's just like his dad, Buddy. Buddy Parrott and David Ifft, they used to look for fights. And if they couldn't find one, they'd just fight amongst themselves."

Drivers don't usually take it that far, as the slap-fest between Jeff Burton  and Jeff Gordon two years ago at Texas will attest. Although his at-track media sessions can occasionally be testy and his tolerance for things beyond the race car can sometimes be limited, Stewart has mellowed considerably from the younger, more temperamental driver who once seemed to be in trouble every other week. He's a car owner now, with sponsor obligations to live up to, and a lot more at stake. Even so, reputations stick. All it takes is one harsh comment to bring it all rushing back, something he knows as well as anyone else.

"It's hard to shake that label, I guess," Stewart said. "You can work hard to do the right things and say the right things, but you do one thing and everybody says you're going right back to it. I don't think that anyone's done truly anything that's been – you look at what happens in football games and basketball games and watch these guys, what happens with us gets blown out of proportion, I think. I guess it's a compliment to us as drivers that the little things get made out to be such a big deal."

Even so, the differences can be striking. Stewart is very much a salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner who lives in the house in Columbus, Ind., that he grew up in, who has adopted all kinds of exotic animals and donated them to zoos, who can be such a softie around furry critters that visiting animal shelters can be hard for him. He's been known to derail his schedule to stay longer with kids at charitable events. After last season's banquet, the reigning Sprint Cup champion threw a party and invited almost everyone in the industry. He clearly bleeds over the Prelude, paying thousands out of his own pocket to reimburse late model car owners for any vehicles damaged in an event that will feature a number of top NASCAR drivers once again this year. In conjunction with the announcement of Feed the Children as the Prelude's designated charity, he spent part of Tuesday loading boxes of provisions into the backs of cars.
In a few days at Charlotte Motor Speedway, though, a similar gathering could take on a very different tone. Inside that competitive bubble, so much can change. It's the helmet, at work once again.

"Right now what we're doing here, you want to help," Stewart said. "When we get to the race track, you want to win a race. You're competitive, your adrenaline is going. You're not always thinking of the right thing to say. You guys [in the media] know as well as anybody, you want to get that raw emotion when we get out of the car. But raw emotion doesn't always equate to the smartest thing to say or the politically correct thing to say. But it is the honest emotion at the time. Some guys are better at masking that and saying the politically correct answer that doesn't get them in trouble, and others give you the answer that you all love that gets us in trouble."

Waltrip, long known for his outspoken ways, has been there, too. The helmet comes off, the firesuit gets unzipped, and the world begins to spin at a slower rate. "I tell people all the time – the guy that you pull for, the guy you like, is the guy you hear on that radio," he said. "That's the guy you like. And most of them get out of the car and put their helmet up, and that's a different guy that gets out of the car."