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With Tony Stewart watching, intensity gap apparent

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Aug. 23, 2013

With no Smoke, will NASCAR still have its fire?

It was just one year ago Tony Stewart made ESPN SportsCenter’s “Play of the Day” with his two-handed toss of his helmet at fellow Sprint Cup Series driver Matt Kenseth’s car following a wreck in the August race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

That was one of the more recent incidents in which the cagy Stewart has been involved during his successful yet tumultuous NASCAR career.

There will be no such antics in Saturday night’s Irwin Night Race, however, as Stewart remains sidelined in North Carolina while he recovers from a pair of broken bones in his right leg.

Stewart, 42, suffered the injury in an Aug. 5 wreck in a Sprint car race at a dirt track in Iowa. He is expected to recover in time for the start of the 2014 season.

In the meantime, however, life goes on in NASCAR’s big leagues absent one of its most colorful characters.

“There’s no question Tony is missed,” NASCAR President Mike Helton told The Observer on Friday. “With the potential of Tony being in the Chase (this season), we’ve seen how he can add so much drama to an event or a series. From that perspective, he’s going to be missed.

“The biggest emotion though is being grateful he is going to heal up and come back.”

While it was assumed Stewart would be out a significant amount of time, it only became official this week that he would indeed miss the rest of the season.

Stewart’s absence reaches far beyond his roles as a driver and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

Throughout his NASCAR career, Stewart has also been a lightning rod of controversy. While he has at times had run-ins with media, fellow competitors and even NASCAR itself, there are few in NASCAR who also command as much respect.

In fact, the completion of last week’s deal to allow Mark Martin to leave Michael Waltrip Racing to become Stewart’s substitute driver for the remainder of the season was largely credited to the respect the participants involved have for Stewart.

“I love Tony Stewart, who he is and what he stands for, and I love Mark.. He’s a special person, and I’m glad he’s going to be able to help those folks,” said MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip.

“That was the motivation was just to be able to help Tony out.”

How does a driver raise the ire of many he works with yet hold their respect at the same time? It’s not a common trait.

“You’ve got drivers that are bigger than life in many ways like an A.J. Foyt and Dale Earnhardt Sr. – he fits in that bucket,” Helton said of Stewart. “He’s real. He’s genuine.

“He can relate to a board of directors of a corporate sponsor. He can relate to a track operator. He can relate with the sanctioning body. And he can disagree with it and the whole world knows when he disagrees with it. You can be genuine and still disagree.

“Time has built a spot for Tony Stewart that has got him where he has so much admiration and respect.”

Stewart’s career at times can appear as an inherent contradiction. He has complained about how his fellow drivers race but at the same time he’s also caused his share of accidents. He is one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers yet has also been one of the sport’s loudest critics.

Stewart spends most of his “off days” doing the same thing he does on work days – races – but will complain about wasting time answering “stupid questions” from the media.

Through it all, however, there runs a common thread. What you see is what you get from Stewart and when it comes to his passion you get everything.

“Those on the inside know that he is an incredible, caring and amazing person,” said Martin, who will drive Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet in 12 of the 13 races left this season, including Saturday night at Bristol.

“For the people who don’t get to know that side of Tony, they might have a different impression. He’s loved in the sport and respected throughout the sport universally for what a great person he is and the incredible driver (he is) and commitment that he has to racing.”

Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson lauds Stewart’s “honesty,” which he admits can also cause him problems.

“At times his frustration with his honest approach, you might hear some real colorful things. It might lead to something, an altercation on the track; getting out of cars and having a scrappy session with someone after,” Johnson said.

“But once the dust settles, his honesty once again weighs out. He’s not one to walk from a problem or run from a problem. He’ll continue to talk to whoever it is and whatever it’s about and work through those things.”

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