CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s probably not the best time for Tony Stewart to assume the role of NASCAR’s traffic cop.
The two-time champion continued his slide in the Sprint Cup Series standings Sunday at Infineon Raceway, where a 39th-place finish dropped him to 12th in points. It was an unacceptable outcome for Stewart, who had a car capable of contending for the win but had his day end when Brian Vickers intentionally sent the Chevrolet into a stack of tires.
It was payback for Stewart wrecking Vickers earlier in the race, and Stewart understood — maybe even accepted — Vickers’ motivation.
But he was unapologetic and insisted that he was right in initiating the chain of events that led to his wrecked race car.
“I probably had it coming because I dumped him earlier, but I dumped him because he was blocking,” Stewart said. “If they want to block, that’s what is going to happen to them every time for the rest of my career.”
That’s probably not the best attitude to have when your championship chances are suddenly on the line. The smarter thinking would probably be to race safe, to protect strong finishes and find a way to climb off the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship bubble.
Yet this is how it goes sometimes with Stewart, who has a low tolerance for competitors who he deems are “driving like idiots.” This kind of thing has happened before, and it seems to stem from Stewart’s own frustration. He’s had plenty of that this season, beginning with a disappointing end to the Daytona 500.
In position to finally win NASCAR’s biggest race of the year by lining up second on the final restart of the race, Stewart was instead beaten by 20-year-old Trevor Bayne and faded to 13th over the last two laps. Cautions cost him a win the next week at Phoenix, and a team mistake on pit road ruined a dominating run the next week at Las Vegas.
Three chances to win, and nothing to show for it.
Those goose eggs are a tough pill to swallow now, as teams jockey for position in NASCAR’s new points system. Only the top 10 drivers in points will earn automatic berths into the Chase, with the final two wild cards being set aside for the highest ranking drivers with the most wins.
Right now, Stewart would be safe because Brad Keselowski, with one win, wouldn’t be eligible to bump Stewart because he’s ranked 22nd in points. But Keselowski is only 12 points away from cracking the top-20, and thus bumping the 12th-place driver from the Chase.
So one would think that situation, and not policing on-track etiquette, would be Stewart’s bigger concern.
Yet Stewart seems hellbent right now on enforcing an unspoken code of conduct between drivers.
“I don’t know if its lack of respect or guys just pushing the envelope and not working with each other,” Stewart said. “There wasn’t any reason at that point of the race where he started blocking in the first place. It didn’t make sense to do it and I’m not going to tolerate it. I don’t race guys that way and I’m not going to let anybody race me that way.
“So if they block they get dumped. Plain and simple.”
But in this new day of “Boys, have at it,” Stewart will likely find that retribution is in every turn. For as adamant as Stewart was that he had every right to start this game with Vickers —who, by the way, denied blocking — Vickers was just as adamant that he was right to retaliate.
“He made his bed at that moment, and he had to sleep in it,” Vickers said. “He made his move and I addressed it. It’s a competitive environment and we all want to win. I don’t know why he wrecked me. That was his decision to make. But I’m good.”
Drivers aren’t afraid anymore to stand up to Stewart, and he’s not running strong enough to command instant respect. He’s had only four top-10 finishes since the Las Vegas miss 13 weeks ago.
He recognized that things were going south at Stewart-Haas Racing, and he ousted competition director Bobby Hutchens earlier this month. Stewart is just starting the search for a replacement, and it’s doubtful he’ll have anyone in place before the Chase begins.
That leaves him with 10 weeks to turn the season around or risk missing the Chase for only the second time since its 2004 inception. Stewart doesn’t have much time to mess around, or put himself in position to be stuck on a stack of tires in a race he maybe could have won.
Stewart needs to focus on himself right now, and stop worrying about everybody else.