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Tony Stewart took own approach to being a champion

By
Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange
Tony Stewart is presented with a bottle of dirt to commemorate his final Brickyard 400 and the special turn 3 dirt track constructed in his honor at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 5, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo by Amy Frederick/UPI
Tony Stewart is presented with a bottle of dirt to commemorate his final Brickyard 400 and the special turn 3 dirt track constructed in his honor at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 5, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo by Amy Frederick/UPI | License Photo

Some careers of great race car drivers are star-crossed, most are not.

Compared to his contemporary Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart's career falls into the star-crossed category. Where Gordon's final full-time season last year was a parade of praise, Stewart's farewell tour has been, well, up and down, starting with a freak back injury that took him out of a final chance to win the Daytona 500 and seven more races.

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Nobody doubts three-time champion Stewart is a great talent or his love and dedication to motor racing. Yet, the praise often falls short. That's surprising for a driver I would rank with four-time champion Gordon and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson as the best of his generation in terms of talent. When it comes to charisma and swagger, Stewart may have more than either.

Yet, the praise is sometimes faint, sometimes coming in the form of boos and online catcalls from fans. Even within the industry, Stewart's personality doesn't always resonate.

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"I don't think anybody did a very good job of giving him the credit that he deserved throughout the year at the race tracks and from a sports standpoint," said his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick "That has been very disappointing from my standpoint."

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Harvick made the comment when asked about Stewart's legacy following qualifying last week at Phoenix. He acknowledged that Stewart himself tried to downplay his farewell tour, which will end at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday.

"I know that Tony probably would say that he didn't want that (attention). But I don't think anybody has done a very good job of giving him the credit for the time that he has put in and had in the sport," said Harvick. "A three-time champion, multiple race winner, IndyCar champion and winner to auto racing in general. It's been pretty disheartening to me to see the lack of credit that he has gotten."

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There's been the opposition attitude all along with Stewart towards those in charge. There's been the angry outbursts and counter-attacks on the race track along with the brilliance that has brought him 49 career Sprint Cup victories, 13th on the all-time list and ahead of Bill Elliott, Mark Martin and one shy of Junior Johnson -- acknowledged heroes all.

To say Stewart is often politically incorrect would be an understatement. He speaks his mind, doesn't worry about telling people to stuff it and is known to be sulky. Combine that with championships and you get, well, a mixed bag when it comes to his standing in a sport that expects champions to measure up to a high standard.

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The same not-so-sunny description often fit Dale Earnhardt, Sr., too. Like Earnhardt, Sr., Stewart is fiercely loyal to those he considers friends and is above all loyal to motor racing. He just never got used to the big time aspect that demanded he act like somebody he didn't consider himself to be. In short, he refuses to kowtow to his star status. That's not necessarily an unusual approach among those who find themselves working in America's celebrity industrial complex.

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By contrast, Earnhardt, Sr. loved being the straw that stirred the drink in NASCAR, relishing the same type of status that sometimes rankles Stewart. Earnhardt, Sr. consciously tried to live up to the standard to represent the sport well first set by "King" Richard Petty, even if he didn't always have the same good ol' charm. The man in black felt it was an obligation to try and often succeeded without ever losing his own unique approach.

Therein lies the tale. Stewart has made the bed he occupies in the firmament of star status in stock car racing. All racers would rather just race and not fool with the politics, the fans and sponsorship side of the sport. Stewart, more often than any of his peers, actually acts that way. Give him full credit for an authenticity that is not everybody's glass of beer.

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The odd thing is that such behavior often worked for one of Stewart's racing heroes, A.J. Foyt, but not necessarily Stewart. As much as anything that speaks to the changing times and the contrasting legacy of guys like Gordon and Petty, who made it look easy to be cool, gracious and accepting.

That comparison to other more gracious champions is part of Tony's star-crossed scenario, especially given that Earnhardt, Sr. is no longer around to keep him company. To get away from it all, Stewart has sought the company of dirt tracks, sprint cars and short track racers. Like the barnstorming early days of stock car racing, when many of the stars supplemented their income with short track appearances, Stewart melts back into himself on the little out-of-the-way ovals. There, he's able to reconnect with the guy who finds so much conflict and turmoil on the bigger stage and able to give back to the sport while rejuvenating himself.

That eventually led to a horrific leg injury in 2013 that slowed Stewart's career noticeably. And to the tragic death of Kevin Ward, Jr., who sadly may have been imitating Stewart himself when he walked in front of the latter's sprint car in angry protest on a dark track in upstate New York in 2014 and was killed. It's a moment Stewart will never forget -- and one that cruel fans won't let him forget, either.

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Stewart can forge on due to the loyalty he evokes among his current sponsors and his Sprint Cup team co-owner Gene Haas and a talent for business reminiscent of Earnhardt, Sr. and Foyt. Those business skills have him fully engaged as the owner of the legendary Eldora Speedway as well as two other short tracks, the owner of the All-Star Circuit of Champions for sprint cars, and the owner of a sprint car team.

Quick-witted and ingeniously funny, it's the dirt racing and hanging out with fellow short trackers that brings out the best in Stewart, never at a loss for how to keep getting ahead and on down the road. His car on Sunday will carry his number 14 -- also Foyt's most memorable number -- and a slogan that reads: "Always a Racer, Forever a Champion."

If nothing else, the low-key farewell tour -- and the low-key response -- confirm that Stewart has insisted on going racing his way and will have plenty of opportunity to continue racing in the future. In the long run, his commitment, not necessarily his popularity, will be his legacy.

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